The European Commission on Thursday unveiled plans to introduce a bloc-wide digital ID.
If approved, the plan would allow people to use an app to prove their identity online, whether that’s to verify their age or to check their driver’s license.
The EU plans to start testing the app, which it calls a “wallet,” in October 2022, when it hopes it will have the basis of an agreement across member countries.
But how will this wallet actually impact people? And is this the end of your anonymity online?
Why is this a thing?
The Commission says it needs a new identification system because it wants EU residents to retain control of their data, rather than share it with tech giants like Google and Facebook.
“Every time an app or website asks us to create a new digital identity or to easily log on via a big platform, we have no idea what happens to our data in reality,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a speech last September. Instead of using your Facebook profile to log in to other apps, say, the Commission is proposing “a secure European e-identity … A technology where we can control ourselves what data and how data is used.”
The Commission also hopes digital IDs will help to fight online fraud, encourage people to feel safer when using online services and boost the economy. One study from the McKinsey Global Institute claims countries with a digital ID scheme will be able to boost their gross domestic product by 3 to 13 percent by 2030.
Some EU countries have already rolled out their own national digital identities, but they have a mixed record. According to the Commission, 19 eID schemes are used by 14 EU countries, but “take-up is low, their use is cumbersome and business cases are limited.”
“All of the EU solutions so far have been in a smaller or bigger way fragmented and therefore, they do not have a major scale,” said MEP Andrus Ansip — a former digital commissioner — who has been pushing for an EU digital ID since his Commission days.
Does this mean I’m going to be a ‘citizen of Europe’?
This is not a federalist ploy. You’re not about to be provided with a European Digital Identity number, and you will remain a citizen of your own country — and only your country.
The aim is that your phone would essentially host your national ID card, which you would link up to the app.
If you’re from one of the 14 EU countries that already has a digital identity system in place, there’s no need to re-register or apply for a new digital ID — the proposed app is meant to “build on” those existing systems and allow you to use that digital identity in a wider range of situations.
Not sure I’m into that…
If you’re not interested, that’s ok. It’s not compulsory to get the app.
But EU countries will be required to offer a digital ID system to its residents. Likewise, public and private services will be required to accept the new ID, but they can’t make it compulsory for users either.
Thomas Lohninger, vice president at digital rights group EDRi, worries that the Commission hasn’t taken into account people who don’t want a digital ID, leaving them at a disadvantage if companies or governments start providing incentives for people to use it.
When can I get one, what will it look like and what can I use it for?
If you do want one, you’ll have to wait a little while. The EU only plans to start testing the scheme in October next year and has yet to set a firm date for when this would be available for all EU residents.
It’s unclear what the apps could look like, and it will be up to each country to decide how to deliver it to its residents. You’ll probably be able to get it from standard app stores or government websites, a Commission official told journalists.
You can expect to be able to use the “wallet” to verify your identity with public and private online services within the bloc, including accessing your bank account, submitting tax declarations and renting a car.
Users will also have the right to choose which data they want to share. So if you’re going into a nightclub and want to use the app to prove you’re of age, you can choose to only share that bit of information on your ID.
The regulation also includes the right to pseudonymous transactions — in other words, no one can connect that embarrassing thing you bought online with your digital identity, even if you used the app in carrying out the transaction.
What’s the catch?
Digital rights activists like Lohninger worry the proposal could allow the private sector to better access people’s government-certified information, thereby actually strengthening the likes of Facebook and Google and the targeted advertising industry.
He said he has little faith in the EU’s data protection rules to make the system secure and doesn’t like that countries are responsible for enforcing the proposal: Ireland’s data protection authority is responsible for holding the likes of Facebook to account, and has been criticized for not being tough enough on tech giants.
Lohninger does not have faith if it’s up to Dublin to take on Big Tech over potential misuse of the new system.
Cyberattacks are on the up. How secure would my data be?
The Commission said it will come up with the rules and standards, with input from EU countries, that will ensure “the highest security levels.”
So, more is still to come on how exactly the Commission will ensure these “highest security levels.”
Is this vaccine passports 2.0?
If this whole idea sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the Commission’s digital vaccine passports — dubbed Digital COVID Certificates — are likely to have paved the way for the EU’s proposal. “This is the impressive side of this pandemic,” one Commission official said, stressing how digital projects got priority in responding to the health crisis.
“It’s a path of no return,” the official added.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.