19 January 2023

The first step upon arriving in a new country is always the same. Day one – get a sim card.

In my experience, it’s usually an easy process. Pick one up at the airport. Stop off at a supermarket. Worst case scenario, go the formal route and find a mobile phone store, fill in a form, flash some ID and away you go.

Having been through it more times than I can count, I wasn’t that worried upon arriving in Germany for the first time. But as it turns out, getting a local sim in Germany was a bit more of a process than I had imagined.

First, I had to register. Ok. Fine.

Then I had to send an email, provide a residential address, download a third party app, organise a video call with someone at some other third party company where I hold my ID next to my face and wiggle it around for 15 minutes trying to get it to reflect light off the right bits, while standing on my head and counting backwards from 100.

‘Surely there’s a better way,’ I remember thinking.

‘If only I had some kind of reliable, universal, digital ID. That would be nice.’

Borrowed Identity

Our phones have become so much more than simple communications tools. These days, they are part of our identity. Not just because they carry so much of our personal data, but because next to a physical address, a bank account and an email address, they are a core part of almost every process for verifying who we are.

But here’s the problem — unlike a passport or a government ID, I don’t have a right to my phone number (or email address, or social media). It isn’t ‘mine’ per-se. I’m just borrowing it. 

It can be lost or even taken away, and the recovery process can sometimes be inordinately difficult — even impossible.

But let’s go back a second. To even get a phone number in the first place (one which actually has my name attached), I also had to send that email.

Now that’s fine. Not really a big deal at first glance. Yet my email address is another thing that I don’t really have any particular right to.

In fact the closer you look, the clearer it becomes — your digital ID is just one tenuous thing stacked on top of another.

Public / Private

Who we are, legally speaking, has always been a bit of a mess — an amalgam of public and private record. But as the digital landscape grows, ‘identity’ becomes far more complex.

Whether it’s something as simple as providing an email address, a phone number, or a social media account, the qualifying information is usually held by private companies. And not just one — lots of them.

My passport or government ID still holds ultimate deference, but it’s the Googles, the Vodafones and increasingly the smaller private third party application and service providers of the world that act as gatekeepers, operate the verification process and provide me with a warrantable collection of identifying information.

In fact, for numerous services and applications, phone numbers and email addresses have jumped to the front of the queue, with social media not far behind.

There’s a house of cards forming. One where identities are built on top of a mass of unregulated and ill-understood digital qualifiers that the individual has little to no actual control over. 

Sure, there is value in distributed data. And redundancy is important. I can use one to reclaim the other and vice versa. There is also value in distributing identification services (or authority of any kind) between the public and private sectors.

But the fact is, we haven’t ever really talked about it. It just happened.

And now, with digital democracy on the (slow but inevitable) rise, my ability to prove I am who I say I am, easily and authoritatively, becomes extremely consequential indeed.

Digital Identity & Participation

As it stands, most citizen engagement projects, from participatory budgets, to citizen assemblies, require only the most limited form of ID. Not a passport. Nothing quite so official. 

Just an email. An address. Maybe a phone number. But little in the way of verifiable proof.

Advocates would say they’re walking a tight rope between participation and verification, and that’s totally fair. We want to encourage more people to get involved in digital democracy, and more obstacles means lower interest.

But that’s just the point.

We all know digital identification is something we’re going to have to clean up and address at some point. So let’s get going.

Many already are, or are at least trying. They understand that for digital participation to work and scale, a reliable and recoverable digital ID is essential.

Yet often this debate is stuck thinking about the interface between simplicity and veracity. Yes, it needs to be easy. And yes, it needs to be accurate. But it also needs to be more than that.

It needs to be something we have a right to and something that can actually be used.

In the mess of experimentation and expansion of digital services, this is where governments can add the most value. And it should be their first step towards any kind of digitally democratic future.

They’re not always brilliant at innovating digital services. They do sometimes try — bless their hearts. But it’s hit and miss at best. Countries like New Zealand and Estonia do pretty well.

But even then, there’s a lot to be desired.

In Germany the e-ID is a good idea. But it’s not widely integrated enough (or known about) to be genuinely useful. It wouldn’t have helped me get a sim, even if I had one at the time.

Governments need a big picture strategy on digitisation and the role they’re going to play, and identification is a great start, as it’s absolutely foundational. 

The Real Me

There are plenty of good ideas out there for making identity more efficient, secure, useful and reliable. From digital ledgers and encrypted keys to just plain better government regulation.

But first, there are some core questions that need answering:

How do we prove we are who we say we are?

Who runs the process or owns the data we use to verify it?

And if we’re going to introduce new components into the verification process for any kind of social participation — whether it’s a phone number, an email address, a twitter account or a digital ID — what rights do we have to those?

Governments don’t necessarily have to create new forms of digital ID themselves. They just have to have a vision and be involved — making sure that it’s backed up legally and that it’s properly integrated and useful.

Although the song and dance was a bit of a pain, registering a sim card the German way, ultimately proved worthwhile. After all, I’m using it to register, to open a bank account, to get an apartment, use social media and participate in society in a whole raft of different ways. It’s important that I can reclaim it. And understandable that it involves jumping through a few hoops to get it. But I still think we can do better than the mess we’ve got at the moment.

Maybe not as simple as an email. But maybe a little less than doing handstands on camera.

The plain fact of the matter is that we need a decent digital identity to do ‘virtually’ everything. With a lot more to come. Something I have a right to, that can’t be revoked and that I can take with me and use wherever I go.

A bit like a passport. But better.

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