Canada is rapidly deploying the infrastructure needed to implement nation wide digital identification (ID) systems with some provinces having already implemented or announced the development of an ID system. The trend is raising concerns over privacy, government overreach and autonomy as well as fears over the inevitable two-tiered society the technology will create.
Some argue that the implementation of a digital ID is laying the foundation for a social credit system not unlike what is currently operating in Communist China.
In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the government announced last year a “Digital Identity Program” that lawmakers say will provide a “convenient way to prove who you are that will make accessing online and in-person services simpler, safer and more secure.”
Originally, the province intended to launch the system in late 2021 however delayed the launch until 2022 saying that their efforts were being directed towards managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province of Alberta already has a digital identification program in place and operating called the “MyAlberta Digital ID.”
People who opt-in for the program can access participating online government services including updating personal information to access Employment Insurance (EI) or the Canada Pension Plan among other entitlements.
Dozens of government services are participating. People wielding a digital ID can access health records online, pay for government products and services and even apply for post-secondary student loans, grants and scholarships as well as emergency food benefits, according to the provincial governments website.
According to Joni Brennan, the president of the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada, “around three to six percent of GDP can be gained and realized into the Canadian economy by solving for the ability to verify people and organisations”; however, these potential gains could come with a heavy cost for Canadians.
Numerous concerns raised over digital IDs
While provinces tout the convenience and simplicity of its digital ID systems many are coming out with stark warnings about what the technology could herald.
Brett Solomon writing for Wired said, “I am nevertheless convinced that digital ID, writ large, poses one of the gravest risks to human rights of any technology that we have encountered. Worse, we are rushing headlong into a future where new technologies will converge to make this risk much more severe.”
Solomon asserts that the potential uses for a digital ID have not escaped the leaders of authoritarian regimes.
“Digital IDs will become necessary to function in a connected digital world. This has not escaped the attention of authoritarian regimes,” Solomon wrote.
As Canada continues to flirt with authoritarianism, as evidenced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent invocation of the never-before-used Emergencies Act to quell peaceful protests in the nation’s capital, Solomon’s warning is more grounded in reality than hyperbole.
Perhaps the most contentious act that the Canadian government committed while wielding the powers granted them via the Emergencies Act was the ability to freeze bank accounts of businesses and individuals involved in the protests.
The Canadian government used hacked information to identify donors to crowdfunding campaigns supporting the Freedom Convoy protests and handed this information over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) who then instructed banks to freeze the accounts identified by the government. Had the Canadian government had access to a sprawling digital ID system linked to individuals bank accounts, insurance providers etc authorities could have turned off these services with the push of a button.
Solomon argues that “Digital ID systems, as they are being developed today, are ripe for exploitation and abuse, to the detriment of our freedoms and democracies,” however proposes another choice, “We can make another choice. In the design and deployment of Digital ID systems, we must advocate for the principles of data minimization, decentralization, consent, and limited access that reinforce our fundamental rights.”
In order to avoid a technological quagmire Solomon says that governments must avoid mandating the use of a digital ID, and that people should have the option to say “no” without any prejudice or negative repercussions. Negative repercussions would include being excluded from services that would be available to someone wielding a digital ID.
An approach like this could avoid creating a two-tiered society where compliant citizens enjoy greater benefits than those who opt out of the systems.
Digital ID part of the foundation for a social credit system
While a digital ID on its own is not a social credit system it, along with a handful of other technologies, lay the foundation for one, including a digital currency which is already being explored in Canada and a QR code passport which was unveiled in numerous provinces as a means to help manage the logistics around enforcing vaccine mandates.
Some argue that a social credit system is already in place in Canada; it’s simply decentralized.
The sum of one’s credit score, health care records along with other government records including income tax returns and civil and criminal records, among other things, are all currently used in different decision making processes concerning individuals both by government and private industry.
This is similar to the troves of data used to power the social credit system currently operating in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where citizens are ranked based on their compliance with social and political expectations based on their digital signatures and government records.
First introduced by then-Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, on October 20, 2011, the Chinese social credit initiative has grown into an oppressive system that affords citizens with higher scores things like an easier time being approved for bank loans, free medical checkups and even discounts on heating.
The system was originally set to be implemented nationwide in 2020, but the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the implementation and it is currently only operating in select regions.
Under the current system, Chinese citizens have points deducted from their scores for things like traffic violations, selling faulty products or defaulting on loan payments. In some cases people with poor social credit scores have been banned from buying airline or train tickets.
An integral part of the system are so-called “blacklists” which businesses may reference when considering potential employees or in other cases, students may be denied entry into universities due to their parents poor scores.
When China’s State Council first introduced the modern version of the system, authorities said that the system would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”