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Will a Digital Identity Be a More Equitable Identity?

For unhoused individuals, disaster victims and others, missing identity documents create a barrier to qualifying for government benefits. Digital credentials may be a solution.

F or most people, a lost or forgotten ID is an inconvenience. But for some Americans, missing identity credentials create a barrier to qualifying for desperately needed government benefits or even participating in modern life.

It can take weeks to replace physical identity documents — an eternity for unhoused individuals waiting for assistance with food or shelter. And replacement costs, while seemingly nominal, are significant for those with little or no income. “We have people who are leaving domestic violence situations, who are coming straight out of being evicted and having their belongings thrown out, or are chronically unhoused,” says Pastor Ben Roberts, executive director of program and justice ministries at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., which helps people obtain personal identification documents. “They may have had documents stolen in the night while they slept, or thrown out by a landlord or exposed to the weather until they’re no longer usable.”

Digital identities may offer a more practical and inclusive way to provide access to services. But government agencies must understand the needs of these communities as they launch new digital identity options.

“Having documents in a physical form is really hard for folks to keep track of, for a number of reasons.” — Jackie Wright, Social Justice Programs Manager, Foundry United Methodist Church


Jackie Wright oversees the ID program at Foundry United Methodist. She says the program, which helps about a thousand D.C. residents a year obtain identity documents, can provide rapid assistance under the right circumstances.

“If somebody is coming to us and they want to renew their D.C. ID, and they happen to know the number and it’s not expired, then we can renew that ID for them online right away,” she says. “Having documents in a physical form is just really hard for folks to keep track of, for a number of different reasons.”

States are exploring how to address some of these concerns as they launch mobile driver’s license (mDL) programs.

The state of California, which kicked off an mDL pilot last year, is developing processes to rapidly issue digital IDs to unhoused individuals, disaster victims and others who need to quickly replace a lost driver’s license or ID card to apply for benefits.

“We are working with the Department of Health and Human Services, California Office of Emergency Services and FEMA,” says Ajay Gupta, chief digital transformation officer for the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). “One of the use cases that NIST and FEMA are working on is using a digital credential to validate someone’s identity and issue benefits on the spot for disaster recovery. Something similar can work for the unhoused, which is what we are building out.”

The state created free reader software to verify the legitimacy of mDLs. Gupta says the DMV also intends to create deeper integrations with social safety net agencies.

“The reader is for people who don’t necessarily need to integrate,” he says. “So public sector entities and even small businesses can use it to scan the mobile driver’s license and know that the license is legit and verified by the DMV. But to integrate with the health and human services systems and make it easier for them to transmit data, that’s a long-term view that we are planning to work with as well.”

Thanks to services like the FCC’s Lifeline program — which provides free smartphones and data plans to low-income residents — people often have the technology they need for digital IDs regardless of their income level. In a study dating back to 2017, researchers from University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work found more than 90% of homeless individuals in Los Angeles owned a cell phone and more than half owned a smartphone.

Chris Caras, director of the Utah Driver License Division, says homeless resource organizations were among the first to reach out when his state began working on mDLs in 2021. The groups considered digital IDs a potential alternative to physical documents that are easily lost, destroyed or stolen when people are living on the street.

“These groups saw it as a real benefit,” says Caras. “With a mobile driver’s license, the information can be wiped if your phone is lost, so that whoever may find the phone doesn’t have access to your ID. And if you get a new phone, you can download the app and regain access to your identity credential.”

“The more government is reaching out in ways that may be nontraditional, the more likely they are to uncover pain points.” — Kay Chopard, U.S. Ambassador, Women in Identity
Adobe Stock


Blockchain technology may also ease identity challenges for struggling members of society. In 2021, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School began working on a project to create a blockchain-based digital identity to help unhoused individuals access healthcare services.

Blockchain, which has been around since the invention of Bitcoin cryptocurrency in 2009, is an encrypted, digital ledger that is distributed among the nodes of a peer-to-peer computer network instead of being stored in a centralized server. It is considered incorruptible because once a record is stored it is linked to every record that precedes it. Computing algorithms ensure that information cannot be changed without changing all the other records in the chain.

The proposed Texas pilot would support people seeking services from the Austin CommUnityCare Health Center, according to the Austin American-
Statesman. A participant would have their identity verified once by a healthcare provider, and that ID would be shared securely throughout the health center network via blockchain.

To receive service, the patient would need to authenticate through an app, or the provider would need to verify them via the blockchain. Each patient-provider interaction would add a new entry to the chain, strengthening the patient’s digital identity over time.

Blockchain is being explored in other areas, too. Last year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed legislation to create a pilot program focused on verified digital credentials, which could pave the way for more digital ID use of blockchain technology.

“Blockchain is one of the technologies being considered as a basis for the verified data registry,” Utah CIO Allan Fuller told Government Technology in April 2023. He said the pilot likely will focus on “non-primary” credentials such as county permits for food handlers. A working group established for the pilot was scheduled to report findings to the Utah State Legislature in fall 2023.


Obtaining any type of ID — physical or digital — depends on someone being able to prove who they are in the first place, a process known as identity verification. For most state and local governments, digital identification verification relies on some form of a government-issued ID, plus the validation/authentication mechanism that links the user to that identity: knowledge-based authentication (KBA), multifactor authentication (MFA) passcodes or biometric checks. The verification step is crucial to preventing fraud and identity theft.

As the nation tightens identity standards to fight fraud and identity theft, homeless advocates worry about the impact on vulnerable members of society. For example, the REAL ID Act of 2005 invalidated some previously acceptable methods of identification, such as military IDs or baptismal records, potentially making it tougher for some people to obtain driver’s licenses.

“When I hear recommendations about strengthening identity verification, I always say not too strong,” said United Methodist’s Roberts at a January policy forum on identity and authentication in Washington D.C. “The stronger we make these processes, the harder it can be on homeless and low-income individuals who struggle to get and keep credentials.”

He says a one-size-fits-all approach to digital identity will screen out some legitimate applicants.

“We’ve had individuals who are estranged from their parents, but all the KBA questions — addresses, phone numbers — are related to a parent the individual has never had any interaction with. And when they can’t pass the KBA, they’re denied a document they are entitled to,” says Roberts. “If the online form or system doesn’t have some sort of feedback loop where you can say to a human being, ‘Hey, this system is denying me. I need somebody to come and help me override it,’ then it’s a problem. If it doesn’t have that, then people are going to get locked out.”

Torre Jessup, chief operating officer for North Carolina’s Department of Information Technology, says agencies must consider these issues as they develop identity processes.

“The bottom line is, are we thinking about the user?” says Jessup, who previously served as commissioner of the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles. “So often we think about accessibility in terms of making sure that we have various languages or if someone is blind or has a physical disability that we’re accounting for that. But it might also mean someone has been in a social situation that might not fit the mold.”


At its core, government is about people serving people. As identity processes become more digital, human options must remain available.

“You can never take away the alternative to have direct access to a facility and an individual who can help walk someone through the process,” says Deborah Snyder, former chief information security officer for the state of New York and a Center for Digital Government senior fellow. “You can’t say ‘Oh, the services are only available online now, too bad if you can’t consume them in that way.’”

Other considerations include:

1. Alternative verification methods are a must. The most obvious need is for government-approved workarounds for people who need them. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) SP 800-63A Identity Proofing Standard presents the process and technical requirements for meeting defined digital identity verification assurance levels, as well as guidance on better privacy, equity and usability of digital identity technology.

NIST SP 800-63A includes a provision on the use of “trusted referees” in the process of identity proofing. A trusted referee is a person, perhaps a legal guardian or power of attorney, representing the individual applying for documentation. Third-party companies can also provide trusted referee services via video-chat with trained agents or in-person at designated locations.

Is the trusted referee process cumbersome? Unfortunately, yes. The applicant must have a trusted referee or be given access to one. The process may require access to a computer or the ability to travel to a location where trusted referee services are available. But it’s a start. The provision gives people with no other way to obtain documentation a path to do so.

2. Safety first. The most vulnerable populations are just as susceptible to identity theft and fraud as anyone else, perhaps even more so. For that reason, “it’s important that agencies audit against the NIST standards,” says Kay Chopard, U.S. ambassador for Women in Identity, a nonprofit that is developing a global code of conduct to address identity exclusion. “At the federal level, there are mandates for agencies to choose credential service providers (CSPs) who meet the NIST standards.”

It is her opinion that state and local agencies should follow those rules as well. “Innovation from the private sector is important,” she says. “The more that we can make sure that solutions are audited against the NIST standards, the more we’re going to see fraud decrease.”

3. Data analytics is key. Agencies must do the tedious work of implementing measurement software and analyzing the data to find out what’s working and what’s not. They need to better understand where the breakdowns in the digital identity verification process are happening. At a high level, they should track what percentage of people are unable to authenticate and why.

4. Better interoperability deserves a discussion. The secure sharing of someone’s information — within the bounds of federal privacy regulations — could help more people obtain the documentation they need.

“I think that we should have better system-to-system verification for identity,” says Jessup. “System verification exists in the DMV with the U.S. Social Security Administration. There needs to be some investment to make that happen at the state level, too.”

5. More education about technology is necessary. Increasing adoption of digital identities among low-income or unhoused residents may require bigger investments in digital literacy, data privacy awareness and secure computing education.

“The population we help has pretty low trust when it comes to the storing of their data, whether it’s in paper form or digital,” says Roberts. “There’s a massive gap of trust that would have to be bridged.”

Bridging that gap would help lay the foundation for equitable systems and processes. The more agencies interact with marginalized populations, the more inclusive identity processes will become.

“One of the things that government should be doing is thinking about how to get more information in order to craft better solutions,” says Chopard. “And often that means working with people in those circumstances, and I think that often gets left out. The more government is reaching out in ways that may be nontraditional, the more likely they are to uncover the pain points and figure out how to address them.”