The result of the referendum on the e-ID Bill was unambiguous: In March 2021, 64 percent of voters voted No. The follow-up survey also provided a clear picture: The majority of the voting public want an e-ID, but they want it to be issued by the state, not by any private organization. This wish was reinforced by identical parliamentary motions from all parties a few days after the vote. Although this may be quick to decide in principle, it still needs legal, technical and organizational clarification. The Federal Office of Justice (BJ) – which led on this issue – decided to break new ground when it came to the process of developing the state e-ID.
Public discussion prior to official consultation
Traditionally, draft bills are drawn up behind closed doors with input from a handful of external experts, and only presented to the general public for discussion as part of the consultation procedure. The consultation process is tried and tested; but in this phase it is no longer possible to make fundamental changes in direction, or changes can only be made at the cost of considerable delays. In light of this, the BJ presented a discussion paper in August 2021 and invited the public to give their views on three e-ID solutions. Over 60 responses were received from cantons, parties, associations and businesses, the majority favoring the model of a state e-ID embedded in an ecosystem of wide-ranging digital credentials. This informal phase ended in October 2021 with a consultative discussion and was used by the Federal Council as the basis for its decision of 17 December 2021 on what direction to take.
The aim is therefore for the state e-ID to allow users as much control over their data as possible (self-sovereign identity). Data protection will be guaranteed by factors including the system itself (privacy by design) but also by minimizing the data flows required (principle of data economy), and by decentralized data storage. The e-ID will be based on a state-operated infrastructure, which will be made simultaneously available to state and private organizations, enabling them to issue a range of digital credentials (e-ID ecosystem). The idea is that this technology will facilitate not only the e-ID but also digital credentials such as confirmations of residence, qualification certificates, and personalized access cards.
Pilot projects as learning opportunities
With the state e-ID, the government is entering unfamiliar territory. Globally – and especially in the EU – there are promising projects underway. Pilot projects are already underway in order to gather experience in Switzerland as well: Technical, organizational and regulatory issues relating to the federal identification card and the learner’s driving permit are being worked through in a practical test environment for self-sovereign identities. Cantons are also running pilot projects to test the new technology. Findings from the pilot projects are being continuously fed into the statutory design.
Broad discussion sought
Since February 2022, those interested in the state e-ID have been able to find out the latest developments through monthly video conferences. The discussion, which attracts contributions from interested parties from in cantons, communities, associations, businesses and other federal offices, is moderated by the e-ID project team at the BJ. Around 100 people took part in each of the first three video conferences. The BJ also operates an e-ID account on GitHub to provide a channel for more detailed written discussions. Debates on the platform are currently focused primarily on the organization of the e-ID ecosystem and various technical aspects.
Government, cantons and communities working together
Cantons and communities play a major role in the Swiss political system. This is also the case when it comes to the e-ID. On the one hand they supply data, and on the other hand they provide services which will make use of the future state e-ID. For these reasons, the BJ’s e-ID project team also includes the head of a working group, established by Digital Public Services Switzerland, which works with the cantons and communities to deal with any specific issues they may have at an early stage.
Ecosystem born of participation
These new collaborative mechanisms do not in any way replace the traditional legislative process; rather, they enhance it. While the current text is being written, interdepartmental consultation is taking place in parallel to the participative activities. This involves a series of consultative meetings within the Federal Administration, before the Federal Council concludes the consultation procedure for the new state e-ID bill, probably in summer 2022. The bill is expected to be presented in autumn 2023. It will, of course, be subject to a facultative referendum.
Although the statutory basis is important, the final goal should not be forgotten: a working ecosystem for digital credentials. The main principle of self-sovereign identities is that they enable a large number of institutions – and indeed individuals – to issue digital credentials, which can be used in a wide range of business processes. The central role of the e-ID is as a digital credential issued by the government, but this alone cannot take maximum advantage of the potential of self-sovereign identities. This is why the new collaborative mechanisms are aiming in the long term to develop a vibrant ecosystem, and why they represent a new form of cooperation between the people, businesses and the state.
CTO, Head Agile Projects Zurich
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