Digital privacy experts want more transparency from the Ontario government in the design and implementation of its long-awaited digital ID program.

The program, now delayed until 2022, will give Ontario residents access to an electronic version of their government identification, including driver’s licenses and health cards, which can be stored on their mobile devices.

The Associate Ministry of Digital Government says physical IDs will still be issued and accepted, but Ontarians will also be able to use digital cards on a voluntary basis to open bank accounts, pick up packages at the post office, request government assistance and access vaccination records. and more.

“All the right words are being said and all the right topics are being discussed, but when it comes to the implementation of any technology, the devil is in the details,” said Brenda McPhail, director of privacy and technology for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. , which the government consulted during the preliminary stages of program development.

“It’s hard to know what those details are when we talk about a program that no one has seen work yet.”

The digital ID program was announced in October 2020 as part of a broader strategy to improve Ontario residents’ access to government services during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Verify Ontario, the vaccination test app that the province launched earlier this year.

Since the announcement, the partner ministry has held a series of roundtable consultations with companies and expert groups to discuss and develop the program’s standards. But digital ID took a back seat to Verify Ontario’s development, delaying the launch of the program until 2022.

The province, which is partnering with the private sector to develop the technology, says the identification program will not rely on a central database or monitoring measures that may violate the privacy and security of personal information.

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Identification data is supposed to be protected with strong encryption software and the ability to disconnect the ID card if the device is lost or stolen.

While digitization can consolidate key government documents for personal convenience, experts caution that it can also present new-found security risks and equity concerns.

Ann Cavoukian, a digital privacy expert who previously served as Ontario’s privacy and information commissioner, says the province will need to ensure that the digital ID program does not rely on a centralized data system.

“The concern around a central database is that it can be subject to hacking, phishing and all kinds of unauthorized access if it is not well protected,” said Cavoukian.

Ontario residents’ physical identification card data is currently scattered across ministries, from health to transportation. If that data is consolidated, Cavoukian says there is more personal information at risk in the event of a security breach.

North American governments have moved to beef up their cybersecurity systems in recent years to prevent cyber attacks and software malfunctions from stealing sensitive data.

This month, Newfoundland and Labrador reported that hackers had stolen personal information related to patients and employees in the province’s healthcare system by violating Meditech’s data repository that stores all patient information, including addresses of patients. home, email addresses and phone numbers.

Officials at Eastern Health and Labrador-Grenfell Health said anyone who has worked in their healthcare system for the past 14 years should assume their data has been stolen.

Ontario has insisted that it will not rely on a central database to store user data, although it has not disclosed any details about how it plans to archive user information.

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In an email to the Star, spokeswoman Amanda Brodhagen said the ministry will announce details about the digital ID initiative in 2022.

“We want to make DI right and make sure privacy and security continue to be a top priority,” said Brodhagen.

The voluntary nature of the program is critical to including all Ontario residents in the province’s identification system, experts say.

“There are people who do not have access to digital devices, who do not have access to online services either because of their location in Ontario or because of their income,” McPhail said.

“All those people need access to identification. There is utility in digital programs, but we need physical identification to make sure no one is left behind. “

According to provincial statistics, up to 700,000 homes and businesses still lack access to adequate broadband speeds or have no access at all. Ontario residents in rural areas, particularly northern Ontario, are less likely to have substantial access to the Internet.

In a survey of Ontario residents, only 17 percent said they were ready to adopt a digital ID card right away. Almost 80 percent said they would choose to participate in the program for the next five to six years.

The province says it is developing proof of concept and pilot projects that will be shown to industry groups and privacy experts for feedback.

“The claims that are made are strong, but it will all depend on how it is executed. Making the speech is absolutely critical, ”Cavoukian said.

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