Digital credentials: EU and Canada dialogue to adopt common standards


As the number of human interactions taking place in the digital world continues to grow, so does the need for efficient and secure digital services. That’s why Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada has announced a new partnership between the Government of Canada and the European Commission to explore the common use of digital credentials.

But what precisely are these digital credentials? As the name suggests, these represent the digital version of ordinary physical credentials, such as passports, licenses, diplomas, education certificates or tickets. They can appear as a badge in an email signature, an ID card in a digital wallet, or a certificate on a company’s website.

Digital credentials are generally used for the same purposes as their physical counterparts, including confirming a person’s identity or qualifications. In order to perform this authentication function reliably and efficiently, digital credentials often have confirmation information constructed in such a way that it is difficult to falsify. For example, a digital driver’s license may have meta-data or a digital watermark that includes the person’s name, date of birth, or photograph. The digital credential may also provide a method to automatically confirm the online credential with its source, such as through a verifiable data log.

The standards envisioned for the use of these digital credentials are intended to improve the privacy and effectiveness of communications globally, allowing governments and businesses and their customers to navigate securely.

From this perspective, Canada and the European Commission jointly explored the use of digital credentials through a series of workshops that examined current technology and policy landscapes, common areas, and gaps that need to be addressed to foster mutual support for the use of digital credentials.

The result was a final report that highlighted several gaps and as many key challenges, starting with the need to identify consistent standards.

The report found that a variety of digital credentials already exist in different economic sectors and jurisdictions: which has led to the development of several isolated standards. But these stand-alone, non-interconnected systems could cause new challenges for mutual recognition and system scalability. To address this critical issue, the report recommended that both jurisdictions, Canadian and European, adhere to internationally recognized best practices and conform to existing online interface design principles.

The report also identified a lack of standards for digital wallets, which, like physical wallets, allow individuals to store and maintain digital credentials.

To address these gaps and further advance the development of common standards across Canada and the European Union, the report provides a number of recommendations, including:

  • host credential showcases to build adoption, awareness, support, and ongoing engagement through formal and informal channels;
  • implement cross-border certification of academic degrees to increase interoperability between Canada and the European Union;
  • establish mutual recognition of credentials through formal agreements between Canada and the European Union.

Now is a good time for companies that have not made use of digital credentials to consider how using such systems could improve the privacy, efficiency and security of their online interactions. Companies that are looking to start using digital credentials should consider industry best practices, as these will likely inform any future policies and standards.

Conversely, companies already using digital credentials should consider whether their practices are trustworthy and include sufficient privacy protections.

Overall, the report should be well-received by international companies using digital credentials in both the European Union and Canada, as unified digital credential standards can help create greater business efficiencies and collaboration opportunities.

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