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Griffin on Tech: We have a problem with digital trust

Peter Griffin, Editor. 29 July 2022, 12:43 pm

If we want to make the most of a society and economy that is increasingly digital, we need to get to grips with how we manage identity in the digital world.

But as Department of Internal Affairs identification consultant Joanne Knight said this week, “here in New Zealand, currently, we don’t have a social licence to have a national ID and yet in many cases, our identity practices are developing a national identifier, if not global identifier, without most of us even realising it.”

That sounds ominous, to say the least. Knight was speaking at the Digital Trust Hui Taumata held in Wellington this week. A bout of Covid prevented me from getting to it, but RNZ’s Phil Pennington, who has been doing some sterling work leveraging the Official Information Act to reveal the government’s work on various digital initiatives, covered the proceedings.

As Pennington points out, Australia is spending around half a billion dollars on digital identity initiatives. Other countries, such as Singapore have forged ahead in this area, improving access to digital services for citizens as a result. But it is clearly fraught with risk too, as Kenya discovered last year, when the High Court there ruled that the roll-out of the country’s biometric-based national ID system was illegal.

Erosion in trust

There’s a very valid concern on the part of New Zealanders that a digital identity for every citizen will be used for surveillance and control. It has happened elsewhere. A centralised system for storing digital identity data would become a beacon for hackers seeking to steal identities. There’s also the risk of marginalising sectors of society that don’t have the means or skills to transact in the digital world.

Unfortunately, the conduct of Big Tech over the past decade has seen serious erosion in trust when it comes to all things digital. As the World Economic Forum points out:

“Mistrust in technology threatens to prevent the open, global collaboration that makes innovation possible. To counter this threat, public and private partners must rally not only to secure systems and data but also to protect and uphold the technological integrity of new innovations.”

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The Government is currently working on the Digital Identity Trust Framework (DITF) and has made trust a key plank of its digital strategy. It isn’t rushing its projects because as the DIA’s Allan Bell also told the digital trust hui this week, “progress moves at the speed of trust and that takes time.”

Fair enough, but a few stories from the past week show we’ve got work to do as a nation in building trust in the digital world. There has been criticism from virtually all quarters of the Data and Statistics Bill currently before parliament, including from the former chief statistician Len Cook, former statistics minister Maurice Williamson and constitutional lawyer Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

"Hoovering up all the information that exists in the public sector does raise spectres of undesirable surveillance of the population as whole," Sir Geoffrey said.

Lacking teeth

Then, thanks again to RNZ’s Phil Pennington, we learn several government agencies are forging ahead with plans to roll out facial recognition technology. Māori data specialists complained this week that they hadn’t been consulted about the moves, which they claim raise issues around privacy and data sovereignty.

Then we have the will-conceived Aotearoa New Zealand Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms which internet safety agency NetSafe has developed in conjunction with five tech players - Meta, Google, TikTok, Amazon and Twitter. It’s an effort by the tech industry players to self-regulate to prevent the spread of harmful content across their platforms.

But the code has been criticised as weak and ineffective and the fact that industry body NZTech will administer it, sees it lacking the independence it needs. NetSafe, for its part, is trying to repair its reputation after it breached the privacy of people who had sought its help after being harassed online.

We need to invest in trust

None of those things inspires confidence that we have a comprehensive approach to developing trust in the digital world in Aotearoa. There’s been too little transparency, not enough consultation and a lack of a coherent approach across government threatens to undermine efforts in the long term.  Is it any wonder we still don’t have the social licence to implement a comprehensive digital ID?

The DIA’s Joanne Knight suggested this week we also lack the skills and capability to grapple with these issues. That’s something we need to address urgently with investment in this area.

We need a digital identity system that people trust. We need to appropriately make the most of government data to provide better services, and we need people to be safe in the digital world. No one says achieving those things is going to be easy. But it would be a heck of a lot easier if the government was more open in explaining to New Zealanders what it is trying to achieve and how it intends to go about getting there.


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