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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Is digital ID too risky?

11 Jul 2024

Around the world, governments are rolling out digital ID systems for their citizens.

Here in New Zealand, plans are also well under way.

On the face of it, digtal IDs seem like a great idea. Being able to authenticate who you are whilst online or even in the physical world by way of your smartphone has the potential to streamline many of our day-to-day activities whilst potentially improving security.

I say "potentially" because, to be honest, I'm not totally convinced that digital IDs can deliver on their promise.

As anyone who has lost their smartphone, due to inattention or theft, will tell you, it's a royal pain in the backside.

For an increasing number of people, their smartphone is their life these days.

Years of images and video, contact lists of friends, relatives and associates, apps that provide access to banking and a raft of online shops as well as contactless payment systems -- all this information and more is often stored on these devices.

If your phone is lost you have two problems:

Firstly, you have to obtain a new device and then load up all the data that was on the old one via backups -- if you have them. Now while most phone manufacturers provide a cloud-based backup solution, this can sometimes be made more difficult if you opt to change brands when replacing the original.

Secondly, you have to worry whether your missing phone is now in the hands of nefarious types who might now have access to your sensitive and valuable information.

Imagine now, if you will, that your smartphone also becomes your ID document.

You won't have to carry a driver's license, that'll be digital. You won't have to carry your credit card or EFTPOS card because that's also all digital via the phone.

Lose that and see how you get on!

You'll instantly risk an $80 fine if you drive to the bank (if you can find an open one) to get some cash out to buy a new phone... oh, hang on, they'll want ID for the withdrawal and all your ID is now on your missing phone. oops!

The worst thing of all however, is that being digital, your "ID" could be compromised from anywhere in the world by a bunch of snotty script-kiddies or other hacker types.

When you look at the scope and scale of hacks in recent times, it becomes obvious that absolutely no systems are hack-proof. We've had US government and military email accounts cracked. We've seen hospitals, libraries and universities fall victim to such attacks. Most recently we saw some 10 billion passwords leaked as the result of hacker activity.

To have your entire life tied to a single digital ID would therefore, seem to be creating a huge risk. Once someone gained control of your digital ID they would, for all intents and purposes, become YOU and could really mess up your life.

One advantage of having the current arrangement of separate login IDs and passwords for the myriad of services you might access, along with physical ID documents such as your driver's license, passport etc, is that your exposure to any individual breach is limited.

Then of course there are the "big brother" concerns associated with becoming nothing more than a digital ID on a government computer somewhere.

I see people horrified at the Chinese "social credit" system, whereby people are constantly surveiled and that data is used to generate a "score" that establishes their entitlement to various services. How long before our politicians opt to implement something similar in the name of cost-savings and efficiency?

Of course they'll swear black and blue that this will never happen -- but can you believe the promises of a politician?

Let me take you back a few short years to the immortal words of New Zealand Prime Minister (at the time) Jacind Adern: "We will not be creating a two-tier society based on vaccination status".

Enough said.

So will I be embracing a government-issued universal digital ID?

Err... no. I prefer to spread my risk and not hand over unbridled power to those who repeatedly prove themselves unqualified to handle such power.

Carpe Diem folks!

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