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Utah Digital ID Pilot Puts the Spotlight on Blockchain

The distributed ledger technology, used in cryptocurrency, could potentially power food permits, social media access and other tasks. But blockchain still has serious political and logistical obstacles to overcome.

Lines of code in dark blue with some of them colored light blue to form the shape of two interlocking chainlinks.
A new digital ID experiment in Utah could make the case for more governmental support of blockchain, the technology known most for its association with cryptocurrency.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — recently in the news for signing laws designed to restrict social media use by minors — has also approved House Bill 470, which funds a pilot program focused on verified digital credentials.

That program could pave the way for more digital ID use of blockchain, a distributed ledger tool that, essentially, lets users record information that cannot be easily changed — hence its appeal to the cryptocurrency industry.

One way of creating trustworthy digital credentials involves cryptographic codes that let ID issuers and holders be verified, Alan Fuller, Utah’s chief information officer, told Government Technology via email.

“Blockchain is one of the technologies being considered as a basis for the verified data registry,” he said, adding that the pilot likely will focus on “non-primary” credentials such as county permits for food handlers.

Utah, like a growing number of states, already has a mobile driver’s license program. This pilot, however, will not involve such primary credentials, nor birth certificates, he said.

The working group for the pilot must report back to the Utah state Legislature this fall, Fuller said.


Many supporters of global digital ID programs, a group that includes major tech and professional services companies, back the use of blockchain, saying it offers better security, privacy and flexibility than credentials powered by other technologies and databases.

The most bullish of blockchain supporters — a group that includes cryptocurrency backers — predict a large, expanding market for blockchain-supported digital ID, with growth taking place around the world, including the Pacific and Europe, and among residents of developing countries.

One estimate predicts that the “blockchain identity market can grow a further $3.58 billion by 2025 at a compounded annual growth rate of 71 percent.”

Backers advance the theory that blockchain can empower “self-sovereign identity,” or SSI, via which digital ID holders “can share selected information with vendors or service providers instead of their entire identity,” as an analysis from Raconteur put it. That, in turn, can prevent criminals from gaining access to the holder’s full slate of personal information, reducing fraud, ID theft and other nefarious activities.

As an official from British Columbia’s Digital Trust Service, which is building blockchain-backed digital ID, put it to Raconteur: “Blockchain presents the opportunity to have confidential friendships and business partners on a foundation of trust.”

Consider this example of the potential use of blockchain-backed digital ID programs: An ID holder seeking to prove their age for, say, an alcohol purchase could use that credential to prove they are over 21 without giving a specific birth date.


Opponents, meanwhile, question the need for more blockchain.

They say the tech has yet to prove itself in the wider world, has relatively long transaction times, does nothing that more traditional databases cannot do, and lacks efficiency and scalability.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency mining also attract criticism for the amount of energy they require, and that could stick in the minds of government officials who have dedicated themselves to climate change prevention and resilience.

As for the Utah pilot, observers are interested about whether the verified credentials will conform to standards that would make them useful for out-of-state business and activities — for instance, opening a bank account, according to Zack Martin, senior policy adviser for cybersecurity services at Venable LLP, a law firm.

Specific applications used in the pilot also will gain close scrutiny. A potential target for the pilot could be the state’s recent social media law, Martin told Government Technology via email.

“With the state having passed age verification for access to social media, that could be an interesting use case for verified credentials in Utah,” he said.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.