Luke Hogg: Utah makes progress on digital IDs for citizens, with blockchain technology as a bonus

It is crucial that governments approach new technologies like blockchain with cautious optimism.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox takes a seat for the ceremonial signing of several bills into law in the Capitol Gold Room, on Mar. 22, 2023.

Utah just took a momentous step towards bringing paper-based government services into the 21st century. Over the next few months, the Beehive State will conduct a first-in-the-nation pilot program to examine the feasibility of a digital ID system utilizing blockchain technologies. As more states begin to recognize the importance of modernizing public services, they should emulate Utah’s approach of cautious optimism.

This month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a novel piece of legislation requiring the state’s Division of Technology Services to delve into the possibility of using new digital record schemas to establish a government-issued digital verifiable credential, better known as a digital ID. In contrast to other states like Colorado and Arizona that have begun to offer more traditional digital IDs that operate using centralized databases, Utah is taking things one step further and investigating how it might make a digitally native identification system built on blockchain technology.

In the simplest terms, a blockchain is a ledger of information recorded across a distributed network of computers where any changes to the ledger are verified using complex mathematics. Blockchains are a way to structure data that allows information to be stored and transferred without the need for a single, centralized intermediary such as a company or government to control the information or data flows.

Due in large part to scams and corporate malfeasance, blockchains — and the cryptocurrencies that are built on top of them — have gotten a bad reputation amongst policymakers. However, the underlying technology could prove to be incredibly useful for simplifying and digitizing government services, allowing them to be delivered in a more secure, transparent and efficient way. Given the promise of blockchain technologies and the potential pitfalls of implementing flawed systems statewide, it is crucial that governments approach new technologies like blockchain with cautious optimism.

Utah is taking just such an approach. Its pilot program for testing a blockchain-based system for digital verifiable credential aims to create a more secure and user-friendly way for residents to manage their personal information. By using blockchain technology, Utah seeks to create a system that allows residents to truly own and control their information in a digital environment while simultaneously ensuring that it is secure and protected from fraud.

It remains to be seen whether this experiment in digital identification will succeed. But, Utah’s cautious approach to blockchain and other emerging technologies has been key to previous successes.

The state has recognized that blockchain and other technologies like artificial intelligence are not panaceas, and careful evaluation is needed to determine whether a technology is appropriate for broad implementation throughout government services. This approach has helped to ensure that the state’s modernization efforts are cost-effective, harm-minimizing, and deliver real benefits to residents.

Other states would be wise to follow Utah’s lead in adopting a cautious and measured approach to implementing emerging technologies like blockchains in government services. While these technologies have the potential to revolutionize government services, it is important to recognize that there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. Each state has unique needs and challenges that must be taken into account when evaluating the potential benefits of utilizing new technologies.

By adopting a cautiously optimistic approach, establishing pilot programs, and exploring the potential of blockchain and other technologies beyond the areas being examined by Utah, other states can leverage innovative technologies to improve the delivery of government services and create a more efficient and effective government for all residents.

Luke Hogg

Luke Hogg is a director of outreach at the nonprofit Lincoln Network in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on the intersection of emerging technologies and public policy. You can follow him on Twitter @LEHogg.