Living in the modern era requires the daily use of digital representations of key items like money and identification. But imagine if our smartphones also contained our passports, our driver’s license, birth certificate, exam results, qualifications and proof of address – all stored in a digital wallet?
And what if the technology existed to confirm the issuer of these vital documents was digitally verifiable? That means businesses would be secure in the knowledge all the data exchanged between the holder and verifier would pass securely between them – with no intermediaries – and was protected from eavesdropping or tampering by the best encryption technologies available. In other words, privacy would be fully preserved.
This vision of the future and how we hold and store our essential documents is underway among financial institutions in Ireland. The Emerald Project wants to make Ireland is the first country in the world where digital credentials are routinely issued and accepted in important everyday interactions. And it’s rolling out a welcome mat for U.S. companies that want to test and trial their technologies in order to come on board.
This initiative means know-your-customer and anti-money laundering interactions with banks, insurance companies, credit unions, etc., could all be satisfied in seconds by pre-verified digital information from a virtual credentialed wallet on your phone. It could be as easy as tapping your debit card to pay for a coffee. Landlords and tenants would also be able to mutually verify each other with verifiable credentials.
“The goal of the Emerald Consortium is to put in place a self-sovereign, credentials-sharing network serving the island of Ireland,” said Barry Ryan, who is chief architect for Europe with insurance providers Irish Life and Canada Life.
“We’ll look back in five or ten years and this approach will be commonplace, in fact it will likely be the norm,” maintained Mr. Ryan. “Unverifiable paper or physical credentials will be consigned to museums. The World Economic Forum estimates the use of digital credentials in key everyday processes would have a minimum positive impact of three per cent of GDP in developed economies and up to 13 per cent in less-developed economies.”
So what is the Emerald Consortium? According to Mr. Ryan, it’s an initiative of interested stakeholders who are seeking to establish a critical mass of credential issuers that include government, financial and educational bodies as well as credential verifiers.
“My company, Irish Life, is one of the early backers of the idea,” Mr. Ryan explained. “We have received enthusiastic support from the government, fintech institutions, the postal service, the Electricity Supply Board, leading organizations and individuals, and some blue-chip corporations.”
Mr. Ryan added financial services are an obvious area where digital credentials sharing could apply straight away. But for U.S. companies that may be interested in getting involved, he points out there are other key areas that would benefit. These include the healthcare sector, where health credentials, blood type and allergies could all be stored digitally. Education is an area that needs to regularly exchange details about credentials – confirming university degrees and qualifications.
“For you, as companies, being able to interact with a successful version of this might be the catalyst for pilots and earlier deployment of similar technology in the United States, which would obviously have massive economic benefits,” he said.
Mr. Ryan explained a number of the technology providers that are already in this space come from the U.S., including software provider Evernym whose technology is behind the Hyperledger Indy Project which is an open source project for identity systems. The Emerald Project is using Evernym’s technology in some initial pilots. Other venerable US technology vendors such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are supporting the initiative in Ireland making it a true collaborative undertaking.
Playing a key role in digital credential security is blockchain technology, which makes sharing information tamper-proof and verifiable. As highlighted by Ireland’s foreign direct investment organization IDA Ireland, the country has an established blockchain ecosystem consisting of major blockchain infrastructure providers such as R3, Consensys, EOS, Microsoft and IBM, and leading blockchain companies such as we.trade and TradeIX. Other companies including Citibank, Deloitte, Fidelity and MasterCard are undertaking their blockchain R&D in Ireland because of the ease of access to talent and the reduced costs and efficiencies of doing base development there.
With blockchain also part of this solution, the Emerald Project becomes even more attractive for users since it means more control and ownership of their own data. For example, with such a solution, when, say, a Google account or Facebook account is opened, the user is in control of the data rather than the company and is in control of who sees the information and when they see it.
Mr. Ryan said the size of Ireland’s population also makes it attractive as a potential testing ground for new technologies.
“Ireland contains four and a half million people. It’s a fantastic place to trial something. So you can get a whole country on the map, with all of its complexity, but actually deploy to small scale because of Ireland’s tech-savvy population, a third of which is under 25 years old.
“U.S. companies will have the opportunity to provide technology ideas and give input into this solution and also reap the learning and the understanding of what makes a successful solution,” he continued. “This could be a great win and a good example of how U.S.-Irish cross-trans-Atlantic collaboration could benefit both countries, as has been our heritage over many years.”
David Gaskin is the vice president of International Financial Services & FinTech for IDA Ireland