Since coronavirus struck, trust in the technological platforms and services, which underpin essential processes, has been crucial to keep the world moving. 

Employees working from home need to trust they will not reveal sensitive company information through accessing servers remotely. People buying groceries for shielding family members have to make sure their sensitive information is not at risk of becoming public without their knowledge. 

Before COVID-19, the digital identity sector was growing. Now the role of consumer trust in speeding up adoption of digital identification technologies is more important than ever.

Rachel Botsman, the world’s first trust fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and an expert on the relationship between trust and technologies, says the role of trust is vital when developing any technology, not just digital identity technologies.

“If you don’t have faith or confidence in a system, then you’re just not going to use that product or those services,” she says. “We can define trust as a confident relationship with the unknown, so if we’re accepting that presence of digital identification technologies within our lives, it will often require accepting we might not know many of the technical details about the systems used. But this is asking a lot for something that may not actually be very familiar to us.” 

In 2019, British Airways was fined £183 million for a data breach when more than 500,000 customers had their details harvested by hackers. But the airline didn’t disclose the full number of transactions that had been affected or the amount of information which had been released. In November 2018, Uber disclosed it had been attacked by hackers in November 2016 and was handed a £400,000 fine. These events can leave what Botsman calls “trust scars”. 

She explains: “Concerns about privacy and security have really grown in the last few decades, but context is king here. We may have more trust in digital identification technologies around banking because we’ve been involved in authentication in that sector for over a decade now.” 

One big mistake often made in launching new technologies is assuming everyone is in the same trust state

But it could be a different story when it comes to a relatively controversial or intimate field, such as the creation of a digital health identity. People can’t be forced into comfort with these technologies overnight. Companies have to work to show consumers they’re not going to let them down.

One method for companies looking to build up trust is to emphasise their product or service isn’t wholly new and unfamiliar. Vanessa Viala at Thales Group says companies can build trust in new technologies by understanding that, while it can’t be rushed, it can definitely be helped along by tapping into the trust which exists between consumers and the tech they already use. Apple uses a version of this process in its product design through so-called skeuomorphism or reducing the unknown elements of a new technology and drawing on what is familiar to engender a greater sense of trust. 

But companies working in digital identity can do this too. Viala explains: “Take the mobile phone, for example. It has quickly become the personal companion for increasingly sensitive services and, as a result, a key tool in building trust. The more people trust their mobile device for payments, ticketing and mobile banking, the better we can educate the public on why digital identification technologies are trustworthy. The key is to highlight why it’s secure for the end-user, as the convenient part is often obvious.”

A second method is to identify trust influencers, people who can talk about products and services in a way that inspires trust on an individual level. In practice, this can mean asking experts in the field to give your product the stamp of approval, as is often the case with new forms of social media. 

A final trust-building method is to make it clear to users what they stand to gain from these technologies. “You have to address what people are frightened of and so you have to emphasise what people are giving up, but also what they’re gaining,” says Botsman. “You have to address the fact that how much trust is required is going to be dependent on that person and their familiarity with these technologies. One big mistake often made in launching new technologies is assuming everyone is in the same trust state.” 

A new generation of digital identity technologies, which are decentralised and could mean every individual holds their own verifiable credentials, could also hold the key to trust in the sector.

“Many people’s mental modes of how systems work are rooted in these experiences, such as logging in with emails or OpenID,” says Kaliya Young, a researcher into digital identity. “But decentralised identity technologies will also change these paradigms. They will provide ways for individuals to prove information about themselves and so issue any person or entity with the ability to issue verified credentials. This kind of technology would make you the host of your own login capabilities.”

Despite steady growth in the digital identity sector, a global identification gap, where basic necessities in many countries, such as registering for a school or a job, or receiving government assistance, requires individuals to prove their identity, remains. Those creating the technologies to solve this have a big job ahead and they must make building trust in their innovations a priority. 

The road to trust is never straightforward, particularly in such a rapidly changing sector. “We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the word identity itself,” says Botsman. “Particularly when we’re talking about digital identities, even the word itself is evolving.”