Canadian governments describe digital ID as the mere electronic equivalent or digital counterpart of traditional identification documents, such as ‘hard copy’ driver’s licenses, passports and healthcare cards.
Governments in Canada and across the globe would have digital ID users believe that their smartphone, desktop or micro-chipped digital IDs expose them to no more risks than familiar identification documents.
Digital ID users are also told that the risks associated with digital ID are small, and that whatever risks exist can be managed effectively by the state.
We are told that the potential benefits are immense: security for individuals, inter- and intra-organizational efficiency, economic profitability and a future of better and new partnerships between individuals, corporations, governments, and international entities.
There are indeed some benefits to digital ID.
But there are also serious potential harms.
Writers Luke Nellson and John Carpay compare Digital ID to a Trojan Horse invasion of Canadians’ privacy. The Trojan Horse is a well-known metaphor for something harmful being introduced to a host by covert means. In Homer’s great epic ‘The Odyssey,’ Greek soldiers take Troy after a fruitless ten-year siege by hiding in a giant horse supposedly left as an offering to the goddess Athena, and welcomed into the city by the Trojans who (disastrously) thought it would be a benefit to the city.
Governments are able to use digital ID to limit access to information, track personal data, and develop complex profiles of the personalities of citizens. Digital ID programs with tracking and profiling capabilities can inflict serious harms to privacy, security, freedom of expression, mobility and equality.
Many digital ID programs proposed in Canada today will not be developed in Canada but instead through partnerships with entities that are neither accountable to Canada nor transparent about how those programs will be designed, or even how Canadian data will be managed.
What are the risks to Canadians?
Individuals can be harmed by information technologies such as digital ID, facial recognition, biometrics, Artificial Intelligence, or a ‘social credit’ system, as implemented in communist China and even (to a lesser extent) in western democracies.
Informed consent cannot exist when citizens do not know when or how their information is collected, where it is stored or how it is used.
When such technologies are combined with an absence of robust privacy laws and widespread apathy about the value of privacy, Canadians stand to lose.
Contemporary discussions about digital ID should centre around privacy.
Unfortunately, the value of privacy has not been carefully articulated or defended in modern public policy debates or in the Canadian education system. Canadians are therefore unable to effectively oppose attempts by governments to capture personal information about individual citizens.
Yet, privacy is crucial to preserve the possibility of intimacy and openness between spouses and family members, between friends, between counsellors and those they help, between lawyers and their clients and within many other personal and professional relationships.
Privacy is also necessary for the enjoyment of security, autonomy and human dignity.
It is a truism that if data exists, it can be hacked. Data collected by governments about Canadians is data that is exposed to illegal hacking, which obviously imperils our security.
Further, governments can use what they know about citizens to threaten our security by violating human rights and removing civil liberties.
We saw this clearly in 2021, when government used the private medical information of Canadians to prevent some citizens from boarding airplanes or even from using the gym.
Indeed, Digital ID threatens the very concept of autonomy: the capacity of individuals to be independent, to pursue a self-determined course of action, and to be free from external manipulating forces.
Digital ID can harm autonomy by limiting access to information, such that individuals can no longer make informed decisions. Certainly, some content limitations are necessary and beneficial, such as preventing minors from accessing pornography.
But repressive regimes use content limitations to keep citizens ignorant, misinformed or both.
For example, the Chinese government uses content limitations to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing the media of democratic states and other potentially ‘dangerous’ ideas that might threaten the Chinese Communist Party.
Technologies with surveillance capabilities have a negative impact on expression, promoting self-censorship. When people know that their behaviours are being monitored (even when those behaviours are not illegal,) people tend to be less expressive and honest and, therefore, less autonomous.
Digital ID also threatens human dignity: the inherent goodness and complexity of being human, a being which cannot and should not be captured or predicted by even the most sophisticated profiling technologies. When governments invade privacy, they undermine the possibility of the inviolate personality.
While the mere digitization of physical documents is a modest and often beneficial proposal, governments will surely use digital ID for more than merely facilitating interactions between individuals, organizations and governments.
Surveillance technologies are a Trojan Horse in digital disguise.
Canadians are being invited by governments and corporations to open the gates to secure and convenient information technologies. The gates are opened, thereby, to privacy invasions that will have negative downstream impacts on security, autonomy, and human dignity.