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Americans Don’t Trust Their Government, e-IDs Can Help

  • Viewpoint
  • 1 December 2020

Joel Burke, partner at boutique machine learning and AI consultancy, Tribe AI, discusses how an e-ID could make government services better for all citizens in America 

In recent weeks, much ink has been spilled over the state of the American electorate, how wide the divisions are between the coastal urban hubs and the rural areas of the country, and the divisive information bubbles Americans find themselves trapped in. 

However, there is at least one thing that is true for almost all Americans: the vast majority of us have very little trust in our government and representatives. 

As referenced in a recent piece on this site - which delved into the results of a recent Privacy Tiger study on US attitudes towards privacy - faith in the government is so low in the United States that 32% of Americans still trust Facebook more to own their personal data than they do their own elected representatives. This is despite Facebook’s myriad of scandals domestically and abroad, their unaccountable leadership, and a business model predicated on user engagement over usability (or truth).

Perhaps not shocking given that a recent Gallup poll put American’s approval of Congress at 18% and with Donald Trump’s approval hovering around 41% (albeit with a huge divergence between Democrats who gave him a 4% approval and Republicans who gave the President a whopping 91%).

With Americans so divided and trust so low, what can be done to change the current state of affairs?

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Image: Privacy Tiger

I will not claim that e-ID will be a panacea to all of America’s societal ills, but good digital identities form the cornerstone of a digital government, and a digital government is one that has the potential to be more responsive, more efficient, and more adaptable. 

Much work has been done by agencies like the US Digital Service, various state and local level innovation departments, and intrapreneurs in most government agencies to attempt to make services better for citizens, but many of them are hamstrung by legacy systems, with the inability to easily and effectively verify the identity of an individual user being a key fault point. 

Take the now topical case of voting. Notwithstanding political preferences, I think most would agree that having a system where voters can be easily disenfranchised because they lack the right identity documents - or hard to verify because those documents are paper and plastic, and more prone to falsification than a robust digital identity - is not ideal. 

By reforming the way that the United States approaches identity management and replacing social security cards (of which more than 100 million are publicly exposed from various data breaches already), the US could create a secure and robust nationwide system that provides everyone with a unique e-ID.

This could eliminate the current disenfranchisement of voters, allowing for easier identity verification that can help to reform government systems from voting to aid, create a cornerstone for further applications to be built on top of (imagine the day when you can just update your car registration details through an online government portal accessible via your e-ID rather than going to the DMV, something that is already a reality in the heavily digitized nation of Estonia), and be more secure.

While there is a tremendous amount of nuance and details that would have to be considered - from individual privacy management to partnering with states on the delivery of the actual e-IDs and their infrastructure, to digital literacy training and making high-speed internet accessible for every American - I believe that e-ID is the critical building block in making government services better for all citizens, residents, and stakeholders in America. 

Actually, I more than believe it, I’ve seen this work with my own eyes while working for the Estonian government on their e-Residency project where I led Business Development and saw the power of e-ID and government infrastructure that was truly built for their citizens. 

With new digital identities, we can reform government services and deliver better experiences to people, so that the next time they are asked about whether they’d rather trust the government or Facebook with their data, the answer will be a resounding vote of confidence in the government

Joel Burke is an entrepreneur and innovator with a career spanning early-stage startups and investment in Silicon Valley to running a company in Berlin and heading business development for e-Residency, the Republic of Estonia’s flagship digital initiative and was previously a Fellow for the CTO’s Office of NYC. Currently, Joel is a Partner at Tribe AI, a boutique machine learning and AI consultancy and advisor to Sentinel AI, a deepfake detection startup.