• ID4Africa

Trustworthy Digital Infrastructure for Identity Systems: The Global Imperative

By Professor Mark Briers, Professor Jon Crowcroft, and Professor Carsten Maple, principal investigators, The Alan Turing Institute



This year, The Alan Turing Institute (the Turing) embarked on a four-year research and development endeavour: The Trustworthy Digital Infrastructure for Identity Systems project. It is work that acknowledges the advances in digital technologies that are redefining opportunity around the world to develop new economic value, to govern and serve within more accessible societies, and, to empower individuals. Our aim is to advance knowledge and enable progressive innovation for assuring these systems are designed to be trustworthy, reflecting the the robust considerations needed to avoid harm, address potential inequalities and protect the citizens they are being set up to serve.


To support this effort and connect its research to real-world scenarios and challenges, The Turing established an International Advisory Board for Trustworthy Digital Identity, announced earlier this month. Chaired by Dr Joseph Atick, of ID4Africa, membership includes practitioners from Europe and India and The World Bank Group’s ID4D programme. Working with the support of this Board, The Turing is providing a unique opportunity for the global academic community to come together and inform the potential for identity systems to support ambitions to develop prosperity and well-governed services, while diminishing the potential for harm.


Despite digital identity systems’ growing impact, appreciation for what makes them trustworthy has yet to be widely explored. For many people, trust in identity systems may be assumed, or concerns over their lack of it suppressed in favour of benefit. The risks are proving to be complex and are evolving as these systems are rolled out. A review of the identity landscape today reveals numerous approaches to delivering digital identity systems, supported by complex ecosystems of data stores, networks and interfaces with relying services and organisations. Many of the solutions available have evolved within developed economies, underpinned by advances in smart phone technology and communications infrastructures. We aim to bring new perspective to this landscape: Our work begins with the particular need to develop a richer understanding of the evolving threats to identity systems and processes, and the risks these present within lower income countries.


Often when people speak of trust in the context of identity systems, the focus is on the technical security of the systems and data. Developing the capacity for assuring trust, however, involves broader considerations. For this project, we have outlined six criteria for assessing the impact on the trustworthiness of the design and implementation of an identity system:

  1. security

  2. privacy

  3. ethics

  4. resilience

  5. robustness and

  6. reliability


There are trust assumptions required of the increasing numbers of organisations —service providers, user organisations, and governments—now tasked with managing identity data that may offer the potential to glean unprecedented insights into individuals and communities. They speak to reliance on all parties to be lawful, competent, honest and transparent in their access, management, and use of identity data. By elevating such criteria as a development priority, the research project facilitates opportunities to develop systems and solutions with a contextual understanding of the communities and environment served.


The systems development opportunities being explored are numerous covering: emerging open-source technologies and interfaces, varied approaches to systems architectures; privacy-enhancing techniques for data management, algorithms that can go beyond monitoring for anomalies in systems to learning from and reacting to them, and more.


It’s imperative that identity systems are designed to be trustworthy as governments, humanitarian organisations, corporations, civil services, and others increasingly rely on digital identity to serve their customers and constituents. They are already playing a significant role in how people interact, access services, transact business, and invoke their rights as citizens.


To learn more, you can download the full report on the ambitions of The Turing’s research into digital identity. The project has also established a Trustworthy Digital Identity interest group which is open to members outside of The Alan Turing Institute.


Professor Mark Briers is Director of Defence and Security programme at The Alan Turing Institute


Professor Jon Crowcroft is Researcher at Large at the Turing and Marconi Professor of Networked Systems in the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge


Professor Carsten Maple is a Turing Fellow, Professor of Cyber Systems Engineering in WMG at the University of Warwick.