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Alex Benay is the chief client officer at MindBridge Ai in Ottawa and served as the chief information officer of Canada from 2017-19.

The backbone plays several crucial functions within the human body: It protects the spinal cord and vital organs, gives structural support and provides overall mobility. Our backbone is essential to our very existence.

In the industrial age, a country’s national economic backbone was composed of the scale of its work force as well as the abundance of its natural resources. The problem is, we are no longer in the industrial age and haven’t been for quite some time now.

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We have been in the digital age for well over a decade, one where the value of atoms and tangibles has increasingly been replaced by intellectual property, data and intangibles. This shift occurred years ago, yet Canada has done very little to provide its citizens with a digital backbone.

Meanwhile, the world around us has made the most of this digital opportunity. For example, Airbnb produces more wealth than any traditional hotel chain in the world with 90 per cent less staff because it used the power of the internet to change the economic model. Alibaba has done the same in the retail industry, Uber in the transportation sector, Google in the information space, and the list goes on.

Here in Canada, we remain a country focused on building roads and managing oil reserves. We are comfortable being the neighbour of one of the largest economies on the planet. But being comfortable does not provide the right conditions for innovation in an age where data now drives the economy. Don’t get me wrong, these tangible things remain crucial to our economy and the lives of Canadians, but so is our digital infrastructure, and we have invested very little in this.

The question therefore should be: If our national economic backbone is one based on industrial-aged concepts, what is a digital economic backbone? Simply put, it is a citizen’s trusted digital identity. Countries such as Estonia, Portugal and Denmark have had digital identities for more than a decade. India has been providing its citizens with digital identities for more than three years now.

To be clear, a digital identity is but the first step in real digital leadership. We should also be talking about modern-day privacy laws, regulatory leadership, facilitating the controlled introduction of machines in our everyday lives, as well as a full set of digital rights for citizens. But the first, easier step may be to provide Canadians with a digital identity.

Currently we use analogue identity mechanisms in a digital world. We have driver’s licences, health cards, passports and other such mechanisms, but these outdated identity models no longer work. We go online without any protection; we interact with governments or service providers without assurance our identity will be managed properly.

Hopefully by now you are now asking yourself what benefits a digital identity could provide someone? For starters, it would help to protect your privacy. Eventually, in an internet of the future, you could even decide how and if big platforms commercialize your online identity. Contrast that with today’s internet, where companies such as Facebook and Google simply commercialize your online presence without your consent.

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A digital identity could also permit a more secure distributed-services environment. Imagine a world where Expedia could renew your passport because both it and the Government of Canada abide by national digital identity protocols? It would be a world where you reacquire the choice and the control of the services you want, where you want them, and on the platforms or devices of your choice.

Furthermore, a digital identity is good for our national economy. In its report titled The Economic Impact of Digital Identity in Canada, the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC) estimates digital identity could provide $4.5-billion of annual added value to our small and medium-sized enterprises. This is not an exaggerated figure; Estonia estimates its digital society infrastructure provides an annual boost of 2 per cent to its GDP.

Meanwhile in India, the World Bank estimates its digital identity could save the country more than US$1-billion a year by thwarting corruption. Back home, the DIACC estimates that the conservative value of digital identity to the Canadian economy is at least 1 per cent of GDP, or $15-billion.

Luckily for us, there is some progress being made by a small group of people. The CIO Strategy Council, for example, is the only national group with members from every sector which is accredited by the Standards Council of Canada to develop national technology standards. It has announced its intention to create the country’s first national standard on digital identity, creating a framework to put everyone on the same page and acting as the first step toward regulation.

Within the Government of Canada, there is a prototype national identity recognition engine that has shown tremendous promise, yet remains but a mock-up of what could be. There are also projects under way that cut through public jurisdictions, as well as across private and public sector entities to recognize one another’s digital identities. It is simply not enough, however.

What this country needs is a bold new policy direction on digital nation-building. We need our leadership to understand that the industrial age built railways to connect citizens, move goods and expand the economy, and that many countries have already implemented their new digital railways in an age of data.

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“First to market” used to apply to the private sector, now it applies to national economies in a global, digitally connected world. Canada needs a digital identity strategy that is funded, cross sector, and that is all-encompassing in order to protect its citizens and guarantee continued growth in a digital economy.

Simply put, Canada needs a digital backbone in a new digital age.

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