A few years back, the White House had a brilliant idea: Why not create a single, secure online ID that Americans could use to verify their identity across multiple websites, starting with local government services. The New York Times described it at the time as a “driver’s license for the internet.”
Sound convenient? It is. Sound scary? It is.
Next month, a pilot program of the “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace” will begin in government agencies in two US states, to test out whether the pros of a federally verified cyber ID outweigh the cons.
The goal is to put to bed once and for all our current ineffective and tedious system of using passwords for online authentication, which itself was a cure for the even more ineffective and tedious process of walking into a brick-and-mortar building and presenting a human being with two forms of paper identification.
The rub is that online identity verification is heaps more convenient for citizens and cost-effective for government agencies, but it’s also fraught with insecurities; federal and state governments lose billions of dollars a year to fraud, and that trickles down to taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the technology for more secure next-gen authentication exists, developed by various tech firms in the public sector, but security groups have had a hell of a time implementing any of them on a broad scale. Enter the government, which proposed the national ID strategy to help standardize the process using a plan called the “identity ecosystem.”
The vision is to use a system that works similarly to how we conduct the most sensitive forms of online transactions, like applying for a mortgage. It will utilize two-step authentication, say, some combination of an encrypted chip in your phone, a biometric ID, and question about the name of your first cat.
But instead of going through a different combination of steps for each agency website, the same process and ID token would work across all government services: from food stamps and welfare to registering for a fishing license.