Today is International Identity Day supported by the many organisations around the world seeking to address the huge inclusion issues caused by a lack of digital identity. It is tempting to think that this is a mainly developing world issue and that in the developed world the lack of digital identity services is more of an inconvenience than a real problem. Here in the UK, however there are still up to 5m people who struggle to access financial services because they do not have the right documents or data. More on that in our recent report.

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit this year is interplay between Digital Identity and Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). What’s that got to do with the pressing need to give effective digital identity to those that need it most? Two things really:

  • Firstly, a significant factor in the development of a CDBC will be to ensure it is inclusive. After all one of the main objectives in CDBCs is to provide a digital alternative to cash. The financially excluded rely on cash and so a CDBC may have an important role to play in addressing their needs.
  • Secondly, whilst the need is pressing, making it happen will take time. The UN Sustainable development goal 16.9 calls for the provision of legal identity for all by 2030. Many CDBC initiatives are operating on a similar timeframe.

The beauty of CDBCs is that, in the main, central banks are starting from a blank sheet of paper, which creates the opportunity to design something well from the start. A big problem in digital identity has been trying to retrofit it into a digital world after the fact.

Another interesting thing is that the emerging model for CDBCs has close similarities to the decentralised model for digital identity, which is the direction of travel in that space. Let me explain a little.

This following picture illustrates 2-tier model for CDBC:

Senders and receivers will have wallets that interact with each other. They will hold the identifiers (backed by private keys) that allow the parties to control the use of their CDBC value. The actual system of record will be a ledger provided by (or on behalf of) the central bank. Wallets will use tokens, which are cryptographic representations of the value managed by the ledger, which are bound to the identifiers (and keys) belonging to the parties.

Now look at the standard model for decentralised identity:

Identity information is sent from holders to verifiers. The information is sent in the form of cryptographic credentials (you could think of them as identity “tokens”) that are bound to identifiers which can be checked in a registry. Of course for those credentials to have any value they need to come from a trusted source – an issuer.

So you can see there is a strong correlation between CDBC and decentralised identity systems. The content of the two grey boxes is basically the same.

Furthermore, CDBC systems will have some very particular digital identity and privacy requirements:

  • There will need to be controls in place to prevent AML.
  • The CDBC must not become a mass surveillance system.
  • The system must allow anonymous transactions in some circumstances but not all.
  • Users must have control over how much data is shared (and in some cases if the user is not willing to share data the transaction will not be able to be completed).

These requirements could be met very well through the use of decentralised identity technologies such as those being developed in W3C, which support the presentation of verifiable identity information whilst employing strong privacy controls. There seems to be a strong case for the CDBC community to collaborate with the identity community. We have a foot in both camps and are working hard to ensure that the years of work put into decentralised identity is leveraged effectively in CDBCs.

It really is the case that Identity is the New Money.

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