What you need to know about the EU’s digital identity wallet

30 May 2024

Image: © KOSIM/Stock.adobe.com

The EU digital identity wallet will let users store various important documents in a single app and identify themselves quickly, but some groups have raised privacy and surveillance concerns.

The EU approved landmark rules around digital identity earlier this year, paving the way for citizens to quickly authenticate themselves using a digital ID.

The European Parliament approved the Digital Identity Regulation on 28 February, with 335 votes for and 190 against, along with 31 abstentions. The regulation was approved by the EU Council a month later and entered into force this month.

The supporters of this regulation say its an important step on the road to digitise public services across the bloc and let EU citizens securely store their digital identity. The regulation also aims to let EU citizens easily store important digital documents in a single location and quickly access public and private services across the EU.

It will be a couple of years before the regulation is fully implemented, but certain large-scale projects are already in motion across the EU, with Belgium launching its own digital identity wallet earlier this month.

Meanwhile, some people have concerns that this regulation will endanger the privacy and digital security of EU citizens, while opening the door to potential surveillance.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at what the digital identity wallet is, what it will offer and the potential issues it may cause.

What is the digital identity wallet?

The digital identity wallet is essentially an app that will let users store key information like an official ID and bank details in a single digital place. The documents that can be loaded onto this digital wallet are various, from train tickets to university degrees.

The European Commission says this wallet will let users access public services both in their home country and across borders, by using the wallet to quickly identify themselves. It will also let users quickly open bank accounts, make payments, share prescriptions, register for new SIM cards, book hotels and so on.

The goal is to reduce the time it takes for people to access public and private services, while giving users a way to store various important documents quickly and safely. The EU also says these wallets will let users decide what personal data they wish to share – such as showing a driver’s license but keeping the home address private.

“The EU digital identity wallet will be used on a voluntary basis, and no one can be discriminated against for not using the wallet,” the European Commission said in a blogpost. “The wallet will be open source, to further encourage transparency, innovation and enhance security.”

It is hoped that the adoption of this digital identity wallet will give pubic authorities a “GDPR and cybersecurity certified” wallet to make every exchange safer, while reducing the cost of identifying customers for businesses. It is also hoped that these wallets will reduce instances of fraud and push more organisations to take their services digital.

The EU is pushing the security and privacy benefits of this digital identity wallet, claiming it will help citizens only share data that is “strictly necessary” if they choose and reduce the risk of profiling, tracking and tracing.

What are the concerns?

Despite these claims, various organisations raised issue last year with this digital identity regulation. An open letter was signed by 552 scientists and researchers from 42 countries on 2 November 2023, raising issue with the regulation when it was in a “near-final” state.

This letter claimed that the regulation failed to properly respect the right to privacy of citizens and secure online communications. The EU’s Pirate Party also took issue with the regulation in February of this year, as MEP Patrick Breyer called it a “blank cheque for surveillance of citizens online”.

“Browser security is being undermined, and overidentification will gradually erode our right to use digital services anonymously,” Breyer said. “Entrusting our digital lives to the government instead of Facebook and Google is jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Breyer raised concerns that the content on these digital identity wallets could be monitored on central databases “because we have no right to store documents exclusively on our personal devices”.

How will these wallets be rolled out?

Before these digital identity wallets are rolled out across the EU, four large pilot projects are testing the capabilities of this service. The European Commission says these projects were launched in April 2023 and include 360 private companies and public authorities across 26 member states, as well as Norway, Iceland and Ukraine.

“The pilots are testing the wallet in a variety of everyday use cases, and generating feedback on the reference implementation of the EU digital identity wallet,” the European Commission said.

It is expected that member states will begin building their own digital identity wallets this year using the “reference implementation” and that the first wallets will be made available in 2025 – though it appears Belgium has a head start in terms of making a digital wallet generally available.

Each member state will need to work to develop its own version of the digital identity wallet and by 2026, public and private services across the EU will have to accept this app as a form of authentication.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic