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If you use the internet to access a service, you’re probably using digital identity in one way or another. As government agencies move their services online, they will need identity verification software to protect programs from fraud. However, solutions to identity verification need to be implemented without shutting out individuals who can’t get through the system due to lack of credit history, recent immigration status, or other reasons outside their control.

On a recent episode of the Federal Tech Talk podcast, Socure VP of Public Sector Strategy Jordan Burris talked to host John Gilroy on the importance of equity and access in digital identity. Make sure to give it a listen! We’ve included an edited transcript of the podcast below.

Q: I’ll toss this quote into the discussion to start: “Governments are still in the 19th century in terms of some of their approaches, systems, and how they handle identity,” said Lydia Payne-Johnson, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Government. That’s an attack, isn’t it?

A: It speaks to the fact that technology has been the last thing updated within a number of government agencies. There’s a lot of competing priorities, and unfortunately, there’s many instances where it’s fallen behind into a state of decay. It’s leading us to the point where it’s hard to promote digital services that work for everyone.

Q: To make readers more familiar with the terminology, could you define “identity verification” and “identity authentication”?

A: Authentication is when you show up at a website and need to enter a username and password or a one-time passcode from your phone. The idea is that you’re “authenticating” or confirming that you are the right person at any given time.

Before you get to that process, there’s a step for enrollment or registration. That’s when someone needs to be onboarded to the service. That’s where “identity verification” comes into play. It’s about confirming that you’re the real person before you’ve been assigned a password or another authenticator. These two concepts go hand in hand and are essential for operating in any digital service.

Q: Is identity authentication ongoing and identity verification a one-time event?

A. Identity authentication is an ongoing event, but identity verification can also be ongoing. The reality is our identity footprint changes. How do you know after 10 or 20 years that the same person is still using that username or password? There are ways to use “progressive profiling” to verify someone’s identity over time using “reproofing events”, where you’re asking them to reconfirm they’re the right individual.

We’re also able to evaluate pieces of their identity over time as they change. For example, in high school, I had a very weird and nerdy email address. I changed it to one that’s more corporate that had my name in it. That change would trigger a reproofing event. You want to confirm that the information is linked to an individual.

Q: I’ve been looking at Google Trends and it seems identity verification has gotten much more important. So you’re sliding into the right spot here?

A: It’s funny, when I used to work in government, there was an initiative around modernizing identity back in 2018-19. We saw that there were going to be fraud events on the horizon and an increasing need for identity verification software. We also understood that, due to all the data breaches that have occurred, the current model of credit report-based identity verification no longer worked.

During the pandemic, we saw rampant fraud across a number of organizations. The spike in discussion on identity verification is because of this “aha moment” as folks realize we can’t rely on the ability to show up in person and present a form of government ID. Perhaps there’s a situation where they’re remote and not able to show up in person. As such, we need to have confidence they’re the right individual.

Q: You said recently that digital identity is critical infrastructure, like the power grid or the water system. Why do you say that?

A: Digital identity is something that me and my business partner Matt Thompson talked about as needing to be there. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) named identity functions as part of their essential functions. This means their disruption would harm the ability for us to function as a society.

Q: The headline is billions lost in fraud, but the sub-headline is that there are people who deserve help from the government, but poor identification is preventing them from getting it, is that right?

A: Yes, there’s an issue with the Pareto principle (the idea that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the population) in government. There are always going to be 20% of the population that falls out of the process. Unfortunately, when we look at that 20%, those are typically the ones that are looking for assistance.

With the antiquated nature of identity verification, many of those folks are still being left out. They already had a tough time applying in person, and then when we shifted online, we just widened the gap for their ability to access these services.

We need to find a way to bring these communities back into the fold and give everyone who has the desire to use an online channel the ability to do so. It’s possible to perform that – when you get it right, you’re able to automatically verify 98% of individuals that are applying for benefits. When you get it wrong, that’s when you hear stories of only 40% of people getting in through an online channel.

The norm should be 98%. That’s central to Socure’s mission.

Q: How do you verify these individuals that are being left out?

A: There are many different types of individuals who are seeking a service. There are people who have a thin credit file or from underserved communities. There are rural communities who don’t have great broadband connections. If they can’t prove their identity online, they need to drive 2-3 hours to verify in person.

We’re looking at our identity verification technology and the ways we approach identity to bring everyone into the fold. We use far more than traditional credit files to verify identity. For example, we account for name variations based on ethnic groups. Those are things that we’ve made a priority.

Q: I remember when I was in college, I wasn’t just unbanked, I was unbanked and broke. How are you helping these people with access to identity verification?

A: You and me both. I was in my mid-twenties before I could apply for a credit card. A lot of Generation Z is experiencing this right now. There’s options for these people – typically they go to cash-only systems or other alternative means. However, this doesn’t help them build a credit report and they can’t verify their identity. Later on, they find that “hey, these online services were never meant for me”.

That doesn’t need to be the case. In the commercial world, we’ve been proving our ability to verify unbanked populations, and we’re excited to partner with government agencies to transform the way they deliver digital services.

What allows us to be more accurate is that we have hundreds of diverse data sources that can help build a younger person’s or a recent immigrant’s digital identity. Our goal is to use this data to find an identity, but it can also give us a way to understand the patterns associated with fraud.

Q: What about speed and user experience? You’ve worked with over 1,900 commercial customers, how does working quickly make a difference?

A: We find upwards of 50% abandonment rates for people who experience some kind of friction. It shouldn’t take days, weeks, months, or years to confirm who someone is. That should be the seamless part of the process.

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