Ontario is developing a digital ID program for its citizens. Process needs more transparency, privacy experts say
Digital privacy experts want more transparency from the Ontario government on the design and implementation of its long-awaited digital ID program.
The program, now postponed to 2022, will give Ontarians access to an electronic version of their government ID card, including driver’s licenses and health cards, which can be stored on their mobile devices.
The associated digital government ministry says physical ID will still be issued and accepted, but Ontarians will also be able to use digital cards on a voluntary basis to open bank accounts, pick up packages at the post office, apply for a government assistance, access to immunization records and more.
“All the right words are said and all the right questions are discussed, but when it comes to implementing a technology, the devil is in the details,” said Brenda McPhail, Director of Life Protection private and technology at Canadian Civil. Association des Libertés, which the government consulted during the preliminary stages of developing the program.
“It’s hard to know what those details are when we talk about a program that no one has seen work yet. “
The digital ID program was announced in October 2020 as part of a broader strategy to improve Ontarians’ access to government services during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Verify Ontario, the evidence app vaccination program that the province launched earlier this year.
Since the announcement, the associated ministry has held a series of roundtable consultations with businesses and think tanks to discuss and develop program standards. But digital ID has taken a back seat to the development of Verify Ontario, delaying the program’s release until 2022.
The province, which is partnering with the private sector to develop the technology, says the identification program will not rely on a central database or tracking measures that could violate the privacy and security of personal information.
The credentials are supposed to be protected by strong encryption software and the ability to disconnect the ID card if the device is lost or stolen.
While digitization may consolidate key government documents for personal convenience, experts warn that it may also present new security risks and equity concerns.
Ann Cavoukian, a digital privacy expert who previously served as Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, says the province will need to ensure that the identification program digital does not rely on a centralized data system.
“The problem around a central database is that it can be prone to hacking, phishing and all kinds of unauthorized access if it is not well protected,” Cavoukian said.
Data from Ontarians’ physical ID cards is currently dispersed across ministries, from health to transportation. If this data is consolidated, Cavoukian says more personal information is at risk in the event of a security breach.
Governments across North America have stepped up their cybersecurity systems in recent years to prevent cyber attacks and software malfunctions from stealing confidential data.
This month, Newfoundland and Labrador reported that hackers had stolen personal information related to both patients and workers in the province’s healthcare system by violating the Meditech data repository that stores all patient information, including home addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers.
Authorities at Eastern Health and Labrador-Grenfell Health have said anyone who has worked in their health care system for the past 14 years should assume their data has been stolen.
Ontario has insisted it will not rely on a central database to hold user data, although it has not disclosed any details on how it plans to file information on the users.
In an email to the Star, spokeswoman Amanda Brodhagen said the ministry will announce details of the digital ID initiative in 2022.
“We want DI to be a good thing and to ensure that privacy and security remain a top priority,” said Brodhagen.
The voluntary nature of the program is key to including all Ontarians in the province’s identification system, experts say.
“There are people who don’t have access to digital devices, who don’t have access to online services either because of their location in Ontario or because of their income,” noted McPhail.
“All these people need to have access to an identity document. Digital programs are useful, but we need physical identification to make sure no one is left behind.
According to provincial statistics, up to 700,000 households and businesses still do not have access to adequate broadband speeds or have no access to them at all. Ontarians in rural areas, especially northern Ontario, are less likely to have substantial Internet access.
In a survey of Ontarians, only 17 percent said they were ready to immediately adopt a digital ID card. Almost 80 percent said they would opt for the program within the next five to six years.
The province says it is developing proof of concept and pilot projects that will be presented to industry groups and privacy experts for their comments.
“The demands made are strong, but it will all depend on how they are implemented. It is absolutely essential to preach the word, ”Cavoukian said.