Digital trust in the age of distance

If there were a prize for the most critical digital tool of the COVID crisis, I’m guessing most would nominate Zoom. The company that followed up a stunning stock market debut by Zoombombing the planet.

But whilst anti-social behaviour is as old as humans, what is new and urgent is our need for trust in the digital realm. After all, that’s where most of us live now.

Digital trust makes it safe for people and organisations to interact, by letting us prove who we are and what we are entitled to. That could include the right to claim a government benefit. The right to be in a certain place at a certain time. To apply to use a service, digital or offline. To purchase something. To work. To safely attend a meeting designed for a closed circle of trusted individuals.

Digital trust has been tested by mass social distancing and found wanting.

With whole populations confined at home amid growing financial and emotional distress, digital government has come under scrutiny. A surge in demand for Universal Credit has exposed long-standing issues with GOV.UK Verify that my friend Jerry Fishenden has written extensively about.

Enterprises still have some surprising issues transacting with their own employees digitally, too.

Many still have paper-based financial controls, meaning that everything from an expenses claim to a multi-million pound purchase requires wet signatures, by people with the right authority, and in the right order.

In normal circumstances human-based controls often work fine; after all Jeff in accounts knows what Hazel in legal looks like. But with a confused, fragmented, perhaps downsized team working from home, getting those processes working online is tough and we’re already seeing an uptick in fraud. These organisations need to digitise, and in the shorter term solutions such as e-signatures are a really important part of the puzzle.

Even company AGMs, usually thoroughly offline experiences featuring inexpertly operated Powerpoint and middling sandwiches, are affected by the ban on mass gatherings. Regulators are having to move fast to legally facilitate the move to online AGMs, and there are fears this could reduce accountability to shareholders.

This is the other side of the digital trust coin. Even as organisations seek to secure their digital interactions with individuals, those individuals have reciprocal expectations.

As Jerry puts it, “21st century digital identity needs to be about precisely that — identity — and not polluted by state or private sector tracking, surveillance and control”. That tension is brought into sharp focus by worries over COVID proximity tracking.

Choices and trade-offs between safety and privacy are tough; they are ethical rather than technocratic and don’t lend themselves to a universal solution. Culture and politics is all. So whilst we see China and Hong Kong adopting mandatory approaches, European governments are highly reluctant to talk about compulsion and Americans are on the streets protesting.

And thanks to the force of private contract, some employers are already envisaging mandatory tracking and monitoring for their own staff.

So whilst COVID can hardly be called an opportunity, it is certainly a catalyst to speed iteration as citizens, organisations and governments muddle through imperfectly towards that much-needed digital trust.

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