Europe is advancing towards its common digital identity project: What is it and how will it change relations between citizens and governments?
This article is also available here in Spanish.

Europe is advancing towards its common digital identity project: What is it and how will it change relations between citizens and governments?

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Author | M. Martínez Euklidiadas

The European digital identity technology aims to create digital wallets with which citizens can link their respective national digital identities, their different licenses, bank accounts, academic diplomas or others. Among other possibilities, they will enable unequivocal identification or digital form, although existing European pilot projects go one step further: they seek to link the virtual and offline world through data.

What is digital identity and its associated technology?

The International Telecommunication Union defines the concept of identity as a “representation of an entity in the form of one or more attributes that allow the entity or entities to be sufficiently distinguished within context”. The digital identity is therefore the virtual image of a ‘real’ identity (or offline identity, depending on the context) created online based on a person that exists on the physical plane.

It is the virtualization of a citizen’s identity, with which they can perform the same activities as they can with their ID document and even physical presence. The digital identity technology is that which secures the digital processes required to safely use this virtual identity or electronic identity, often simplified as eID.

How is the EU digital identity progressing?

The digital identity concept has been a thing of science fiction since the mid-1970s, but it is in the last decade that different regions of the world have started to establish regulations in this regard, particularly China  —the first to do so in 2018 with eID cards with QR codes and with its proposal to the UN to create a unified Digital Identity system (similar to the globally compatible federated email)— and Europe, at the forefront in terms of regulations.

How is the European eID advancing? The European proposed Digital Identity Regulation has been under study by numerous panels of experts since 2021, the year in which the European Commission consolidated these boards and asked member states to participate. In February 2022, eIDAS experts (European electronic identification and trust services initiative) outlined the architectural framework for this EU digital identity wallet; and one year later the first version of a common toolbox was published, which was made public in Github in September 2023.

What is the purpose of the EU common digital identity?

Today, pilot projects consider that EUDI Wallets can be used to access the following services:

  1. Accessing government services: Secure access to digital public services, such as applying for a passport or driver’s licence, filing taxes, or accessing social security information.
  2. Opening a bank account: Verification of a user’s identity when opening an online bank account, eliminating the need for the user to repeatedly provide their personal information
  3. SIM Registration: Proof of identity for the purpose of pre- and post-paid SIM card contracts (registration and activation), reducing fraud and costs for mobile network operators.
  4. Mobile Driving Licence: The storage and presentation of the mobile driving licence in both online and physical interactions such a driver providing their licence on the side of the road.
  5. Signing contracts: Creating secure digital signatures for signing contracts online, eliminating the need for paper documents and physical signatures.
  6. Claiming Prescriptions: Providing details of prescription to pharmacies and initiating the dispensation of medical products.
  7. Travelling: Presenting information from travel documents (e.g. the user’s passport, visa, and other), allowing for quick and easy access when going through airport security and customs.
  8. Organisational Digital Identities: Proving you are a legitimate representative of an organisation.
  9.  Payments: Verification of a user’s identity when initiating a payment online.
  10.  Education certification: Proof of possession for educational credentials, such as diplomas, degrees, and certificates making it easier to apply for jobs or further education.

Accessing Social Security benefits: An EU Digital Identity Wallet can be used to securely access a user’s social security information and benefits, such as retirement or disability benefits. It can also be used to facilitate freedom of movement by storing documents such as the European Health Insurance Card.

What technology will be used with the EU electronic identity?

Although there is nothing definitive yet, European digital identity applications are likely to be based on blockchain technology. The existing logical architecture is flexible and includes characteristics such as the use of cryptographic security, online/offline uses or user authentication.

For and against: who, why and how are people opposing the common digital identity?

The digital identity is not without risks, and therefore it is not without detractors. As the virtualization of the world outside of the digital sphere expands across our daily lives, records of our activities are on the rise and our digital footprint is harder to eliminate. With it, the possibility of being more exposed in the future.

This is why numerous experts have warned against some of the ways in which this digital identity could be developed. For example, the potential centralization has often been criticized, pointing towards decentralized protocols as a safer way of protecting citizens. The guarantee of anonymity or identity protection have also been disputed, among other more complex issues.

Undoubtedly, this regulation will require widespread consensus, which is being launched as, point by point, the baselines are being developed for the creation of digital identities. To a large extent, European legislation itself guarantees the rights and freedoms of its citizens, therefore, slowly but surely, we can expect people to receive these wallets soon.

Image | KOBU Agency

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