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What if you knew who's who on the internet?

By Nick Rockel | June 13, 2013
What if you knew who's who on the internet?
Dave Nikolejsin

Dave Nikolejsin has helped push British Columbia to the forefront of electronic services delivery, but to hear him tell it, he’s just getting started. B.C. is a recognized Canadian leader in e-government, notes Nikolejsin, an associate deputy minister with the provincial Environmental Assessment Office. “We’re very proud of that and what we’ve done,” he says. “But we’re not satisfied with the current state for online services, and we’ve got a lot of big ideas on where to go next.”

Before taking his post last fall, Nikolejsin spent seven years as the B.C. government’s Chief Information Officer. He’s still the province’s national policy lead on all initiatives related to digital identity, a role that calls for collaboration with other provinces, the federal government and the private sector.

By working together to create secure digital identity for online transactions, these partners can boost the Canadian economy, Nikolejsin contends. “Public sector and private sector – if we could take away the friction of relying on paper and plastic documents that’s there right now, it would change everything,” he says.

So far, B.C. has harvested the low-hanging fruit for e-government, Nikolejsin explains. Citizens can access many services and forms online, from business permits to adult education grants. They can also choose from thousands of government data sets through DataBC, part of Canada’s first provincial open data program. “But we’ve run out of runway simply because we’re now faced with what I call the hard stuff,” Nikolejsin says. “You can always tell when you hit the hard stuff because you run into this digital identity problem.”

As Nikolejsin points out, transactions such as accessing health records or opening a bank account must still happen face-to-face because they require a driver’s license or another form of secure identification issued by government. “When I’m looking at you across a counter, we can conduct a different kind of transaction because I can force you to produce your ID,” he says. “When you look at how do you trust who’s who in the zoo, the current paper/plastic-based system we have today really works.”

For several years, B.C. has been working hard to devise a trusted, provincially issued digital identity, Nikolejsin says. “How do you present an online set of digital credentials that would work just like it works in the paper world?” Compared with conventional e-services – filling out a form online, for example – such a breakthrough would be transformative, he asserts. Instead of filling out a form, printing it and then either mailing it in or standing in line to complete the transaction, you could do the whole thing – just as if you were there in person.

The province recently introduced its new BC Services Card, which allows citizens to choose to combine their driver’s license and healthcare card. When people get their new card they are enrolled in the government’s digital identity service.

As it develops that technology, B.C. is encouraging healthcare, education and other service providers to think about the what-if questions, Nikolejsin says. “What if citizens could prove who they are on the Internet? What would you as a service provider do differently, and what transformative things could you imagine doing?”

The public and private sectors both face pressure to solve the digital identity problem. On the public side, citizens look at powerful online banking tools and demand similar access to important government services, Nikolejsin explains. “The expectations are, ‘Why can I do online banking and all these other things online, but I can’t enroll my child in school, or vote or get my health records online?’”

Government officials want the same things, he adds, citing the possibility of allowing people to manage their healthcare by using a rich set of online resources that includes medical records. “As you imagine the evolution of healthcare – and in a truly transformative way, helping bend that cost curve by thinking about how you’d do it differently – at its root you’ve got to solve this online problem.”

Across Canada, one of the big stumbling blocks is a lack of willingness to invest in infrastructure, Nikolejsin says. B.C. will spend $150-million over five years on its Services Card infrastructure – a number that scares other provinces – but it was well worth it, he argues. “In B.C., the Ministry of Health was looking at replacing the aging Care Card system with a high-quality, picture ID for health. Our deputy ministers of technology and transformation committee supported a wider view that would see the needs of health addressed, and at the same time provide a foundation for all government services.”

Private players such as banks and telecommunications providers realize that secure digital identity would be a game-changer for them, too, Nikolejsin says. Banks must still prove a customer’s identity by relying on plastic and paper ID from the government. And unfortunately for them, antiterrorism initiatives and other regulations reinforce the dependency on in-person transactions.

Nikolejsin thinks Canada should seize its extraordinary opportunity to tackle the digital identity challenge, given that it has just 10 provinces and a handful of major banks and telcos. “We’re actually small enough and we all know each other,” he says. “You can work on this problem in a way that you just can’t do in some countries, like the U.S. in particular.”
On the collaboration front, the federal government’s Task Force for the Payments System Review devoted a report to digital identity. “That process provided the aha moment for these industry players – device companies, telcos, banks and others that participated – to say, ‘We need a solution for this who’s-who-on-the-Internet problem that is standardized and multipurpose,’” says Nikolejsin, who is a member of the task force’s digital identification and authentication working group.

Recommendations from the Payment Systems Review work sparked the launch of the Digital Identity and Authentication Council of Canada (DIAC), for which Nikolejsin has served as interim chairman since late 2012. DIAC must move from founding board status and broaden its membership, he says. Its public sector directors comprise officials from British Columbia, Ontario and the federal government. Representing the private sector are Bank of Montreal, Quebec credit union Desjardins Group, Toronto Dominion Bank and Burnaby, B.C.-based Telus. “The good news is that there are very senior business-level people participating from all of the above,” Nikolejsin says of the latter. “They see the opportunity.”

These participants from industry are watching to see whether other provinces will follow B.C.’s lead on digital identity because a one-province solution would be useless to the private sector, he adds. “The banks are not going to bind their organizations to something that’s not for real,” warns Nikolejsin. “It is also possible that, failing a national approach, each province, the federal government and the banks will just go solve it themselves, for themselves, setting aside the opportunity for enabling the digital economy.”

And whatever Canada does has to interoperate with the rest of the world. The same underlying architecture for digital identity has been accepted across Canada and in jurisdictions such as the United States and Britain, Nikolejsin says. To him, that’s reason for hope.

“And the reason I like Canada’s chances, and why I personally think this is what our digital economy strategy should embrace at its core, is that we have a chance to lead here,” Nikolejsin says. “And if we could get this right, not only would we lead but it would be measurable and meaningful in real GDP terms.”

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