The US government’s embrace of technology, even technology the government itself developed (see: ARPANET), often lags well behind its private-sector counterparts. Part of this is attributable to the glacial pace of large bureaucracy – but as more nations begin to embrace the internet as a weapon to be used in defense of government, the inadequacies of how slowly the US is embracing its own creation are laid bare.
I want to propose a digital identity policy framework that adapts the strategic elements of a strategy released by the Obama administration and integrates modern technology into the many functions of the US government. First, however, I want to briefly discuss the shortcomings of the past two administrations’ approaches to digital identity, then segue into how we might close the gap with governments around the world which are innovating more rapidly than in the US.
As a quick disclaimer, I am focusing this proposal on the federal government; many state, county, and municipal governments in the US have taken to the digital age with fervor and have actively begun implementing many of the same policies that I propose here. A few examples, that might lead to further research into how we might integrate the internet and digital technology into bureaucratic operations are the Wyoming state government’s work in cryptocurrency regulation and blockchain, the Kansas City government’s embrace of universal internet access and smart city innovations, and the San Diego government for its cybersecurity strategies.
One of the critical building blocks of this proposal is the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). The Obama administration’s strategy outlines a move toward more robust cyber infrastructure catered to individuals. The proposed strategy is broad and far-reaching (the administration cites eight principles to improve in their Identity Ecosystem: privacy protections, convenience, efficiency, ease-of-use, security, confidence, innovation, and choice) but contains few concrete programs that facilitate these goals. The strategy is effective, however, at communicating the pressing nature of digital identity programs and the need for greater protection of democracy, individual rights, and trust in the internet age.
Unfortunately, the policy was only revisited once, with a $3.7 million commitment in 2015, and has received little acknowledgement from the Trump administration for the past four years. In fact, the web page for the digital identity initiative, found on the NIST site, throws up an error message if you try to navigate for more information.
As such, I recommend we build on the NSTIC with a significant reinvestment in the program. An investment somewhere in the vicinity of $250 million would match similarly scaled private sector networks and would provide a significant basis for a digital program that could expand and improve the efficiency and efficacy of existing government programs, as I will show. This recommendation follows three phases: immediate, near-term, and long-term.
Step one – We centralize identification factors including government issued IDs, passports, and drivers’ licenses in a secure digital platform that encrypts user da
ta but allows instant access to forms of identification for all US citizens and residents.
Step two – We build out a platform and digital infrastructure to connect government assistance programs, taxation, and other services to those who are eligible – a process that has begun but is not well-known or widely-used. The programs this might benefit (including SNAP, the ACA, affordable housing assistance, Medicaid, and the CARES Act) are widely available, although often unwieldy and susceptible to fraud due to inadequate verification processes.
Step three – We begin work to integrate digital systems into new policy, including digital wallets, census counting, and voter registration.
This proposal will increase the US. government’s capacity for verifying the identity of citizens, decreasing the incidence and claims of fraud. It will also make the programs the US government implements more efficient in allocating funds and more effective at providing aid to individuals in need, potentially recouping the original investment if applied strategically. It will make our governance functions more accurate and targeted and will enable the potential expansion into other digital programs. And, an effective digital identity program might mark the reemergence of the United States as a leader and an innovator in cutting edge technologies and bureaucratic innovation.