Digital democracy: a Swiss view on digital trust

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Cristian Duda, Project Lead, Digital Identity, World Economic Forum & Markus Naef, CEO, SwissSign Group AG


  • Economies are increasingly becoming digital-first as individuals interact with services and products online.
  • In March 2021, voters in Switzerland rejected a proposed government digital identification scheme which would have private sector involvement.
  • Trust was a major factor, so what can other governments and private sector organizations learn from the Swiss?

A trusted digital identity is a key requirement in modern economies. To benefit from digital identity the necessary digital infrastructure needs to be built. If used correctly, digital identity allows an individual to access multiple government and private services in a secure and trusted way, through a digital wallet for example.

In such key infrastructure there is a need to understand how governments and the private sector take roles in driving digital identity. It is essential to offer much needed services to individuals and organizations, while avoiding the negative side effects, such as government surveillance, lack of privacy for personal data, excluding parts of the population lacking digital means, or competitive disadvantages.

Digital Identity is how we (natural persons) are represented online; including attributes, profiles, history, and inferences being made about ourselves.To be useful and individual centric, digital identity must be controlled by the individual, fit for purpose, widely accepted, inclusive and secure.—Multi-stakeholder community curated by the World Economic Forum, 2018.

Switzerland: a digital identity case study

  • High level of trust in digital: Switzerland is a modern, highly digitized economy with a population of 8.4 million. People are highly connected, perform many tasks online and there is a high level of trust in digital.
  • Private sector beginnings: A few years ago, major Swiss players – banks, insurers, and state-driven corporations such as the federal railways and national post – joined forces to create SwissID, a way for individuals to connect to services in a trusted, unified way. Local governments (e.g. Canton of Zug in the “Swiss Crypto-Valley”) also created digital identity to access public services.
  • What’s missing? A truly universal digital identity has not been achieved – adoption by individuals is not yet universal. Private sector adoption is slower due to the need to establish a market covering (future) needs, which individuals and public/private sector are not yet fully aware of. There is uncertainty on how to adopt this technology and competitive and privacy fears (e.g. why allow customers to access both mine and my competitor’s services?) but government guidance is expected.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about digital identity?

In an era of unprecedented data and ubiquitous intelligence, it is essential that organizations reimagine how they manage personal data and digital identities. By empowering individuals and offering them ways to control their own data, user-centric digital identities enable trusted physical and digital interactions – from government services or e-payments to health credentials, safe mobility or employment.

The World Economic Forum curates the Platform for Good Digital Identity to advance global digital identity activities that are collaborative and put the user interest at the center.

The Forum convenes public-private digital identity collaborations from travel, health, financial services in a global action and learning network – to understand common challenges and capture solutions useful to support current and future coalitions. Additionally, industry-specific models such as Known Traveller Digital Identity or decentralized identity models show that digital identity solutions respecting the individual are possible.

  • Proposed e-ID law: The Swiss Confederation aimed to introduce an e-ID law to create a non-mandatory government recognized digital ID. It wanted to enable a market of digital identity providers – overseen by the government – to issue digital identities, operate and run the key infrastructure. It aimed to create an independent body to oversee developments, and maintenance of privacy and security standards with measures to avoid monopolies.
  • Direct-democracy referendum: Should e-IDs be issued by the government only without giving data to the private sector? In Switzerland its population can raise issues on legislation through a national referendum if enough signatures are gathered. A referendum was called in March 2021 against the e-ID law due to concerns on the risk of key private data being managed by private entities.

What are the key lessons learned?

The Swiss e-ID referendum was rejected – the e-ID law will not become legislation yet. Still, the key for successful digital identity will be to pursue identity ecosystems. Why?

Governments as a safeguarding force

People and organizations do want trusted ways to access services online and look up to governments for oversight and guidance. Initial issues from digital identity approaches like India’s Aadhaar, where digital identity was initially introduced without privacy safeguards, have been rightly addressed by the Swiss government proposal. At the same time, even government-issued digital IDs should be made interoperable with other sectors under government guidance. This will allow individuals to build wallets that they control, with virtual items like study credentials verified by a recognized school, or a health certificate issued by a recognized hospital linked to their digital ID. It is the role of the government to avoid stand-still, drive interoperability and educate the population on benefits and safeguards of digital approaches.

Private sector must prioritize consumers

Digital identity ecosystems allow individuals to use and control a digital ID wallet with verified attributes about themselves across services. If core digital identity is to be created by governments, then private organizations must look at how they can service customers better by allowing them to use their “wallets” across company boundaries – for example a patient ordering medicine may need to buy supporting materials from retailers and buy insurance – this does not create a competitive disadvantage, but creates more opportunities for commerce. Participating in dialogues with the public sector is key to shaping solutions that drive user-centricity, usefulness and revenues.

Most importantly, both governments and the private sector must act with the individual in mind to cover the relevant needs with the right safeguards.

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