Digital identity card
#Identity Technology

Will our documents become digital?

Global Trends
6 Mins.

How can we move closer to the digitalization of physical documents? It’s probable that both worlds will continue to coexist for at least the next decade. The greatest challenge is not simply to virtualize documents, but to build up a complete national digital ecosystem.

Close up of a man at the mobile and laptop
The first projects for the virtualization of sovereign documents are already in place

Worldwide, many sovereign documents have recently been digitalized – or rather, partially digitalized. Numerous national identity cards, travel documents, and driving licenses are now equipped with electronic chips that store data to identify their owners.

Compared to purely physical documents, these partially digitalized documents have a particular advantage: data manifesting an individual’s identity can be transferred securely via the internet without media disruption.

These digital documents and respective government-approved attributes form an indispensable basis for an efficient, digital, and automated eGovernment ecosystem.

However, the digitalization of sovereign documents is also associated with security challenges. There’s a fundamental risk, for example, that unauthorized persons could access data. To protect chip data from such attacks, international security standards have been established.

High security for chip data

Basic Access Control (BAC) allows chip data, such as last name, first name, or facial image to be read while ensuring that data is encrypted between the electronic ID document and the reading device. Extended Access Control (EAC) is used in conjunction with BAC and protects access to sensitive data with an additional security layer.

It also ensures authentication between the chip’s microprocessor and the reading device and ensures that only authenticated and authorized readers can read the data. This authorization of the reading devices is done by a public key infrastructure (PKI), which issues, distributes, and verifies digital certificates.

Identity solutions providers have to be steps ahead of forgers. While forgers and cyberattackers try to develop new and increasingly advanced attack techniques, identity providers have to invest in advanced technologies for physical and digital security features.

It’s therefore vital that new security features are continuously added and updated throughout the document’s lifecycle, keeping the bar for forgers and others with criminal intent high.

Driving eGovernment

The complete digitalization of identity documents – that is, their digitalization for mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets – is the next logical step in driving eGovernment.

“The complete digitalization of identity documents is the next logical step“

Although this is technically unproblematic, additional security measures are required, and the gap created by the elimination of the physical security elements must be closed.

Passports and ID cards, for example, contain numerous physical features, such as a relief surface, holographic portraits, and watermarks; these protect the documents from counterfeiting and prove that they were officially issued.

The first projects for the virtualization of sovereign documents are already in place. For example, in 2018 the Republic of Kosovo implemented the world's first nationwide mobile driver’s license. If required, drivers can now show a QR code of the virtual driving license on their mobile devices, and the data can be checked via a secure SSL connection.

Not if, but when

Despite such lighthouse projects, physical documents will not become obsolete for a long time to come. The big challenge is not only to virtualize the documents, but also to build the complete digital ecosystem needed for their effective use.

Nevertheless, the advantages of digital documents will become more visible as their security mechanisms are further sharpened. The shift towards virtual documents is therefore no longer a question of “whether,” but rather of “when.”

Published: 18/05/2020

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