In Conversation With: Joni Brennan

Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in public engagement and civic technology.

This month, we spoke with Joni Brennan, President of the Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC). Building upon 15 years of hands-on experience in Identity Access Management innovations and industry standards development, Joni helps the DIACC to fulfill its vision of organizing Canadian market forces to unlock digital identity and authentication (DIA) economic opportunities for all Canadians. Joni builds diplomatic collaboration relationships and formalizes strategic partnerships between organizations.

Q: You became the President of the DIACC in 2016. How did you first become involved in the fields of digital ID and authentication

A: Early in my career, I was a webmaster with the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) working with a standards developing group called the Liberty Alliance. Liberty Alliance recognized early that digital identity should be standardized and, ideally, digital identity should not be under the ultimate control of any particular corporation or government – that digital identity really is a common good and a common need. That organization helped to form some of the initial concepts around federated identity and single sign-on. Of all the projects I was working on at the time, the work around digital identity was compelling because it had a human element that was important to people in their everyday lives. For that reason, I asked to get more involved in that program. That was over 15 years ago, and I’ve been working in identity standards development ever since. I joined the efforts in what was the early days – and I never left the field because it’s incredibly compelling.

Q: It’s definitely a field that is changing quickly with new technologies and new challenges, so there are a lot of opportunities to tackle these issues over time.

A: Absolutely. Digital identity challenges and technologies continue to change, so the space may not be as rigidly defined as other technology spaces. Something else that changed around a decade ago, was a very noticeable shift in attention to the intersection technology and policy. Policy had always been identified as an area that needed attention, but it soon became very apparent that delivery of digital identity services relies on an intersection of expertise between business, legal and technology fields of discipline. There are business factors such as convenience of user experience. there are policy and legal factors such as constitutionality, and finally there is the technology, which may be one of the easier part to solve. I’d say that the technology is easier only because engineers are great at solving problems while business and policy introduce human complexity.

Q: What is the single greatest challenge that DIACC is working to tackle?

A: The single greatest challenge that DIACC is working to tackle is to accelerate Canada’s full and beneficial participation in the digital economy by delivering a suite of Canadian principled standards for digital ID ecosystems and solutions within. We recognize a lot of work is happening globally and we also recognize that our culture, our constitutional makeup and our federated governance result in some specific requirements, cultural values and principles that we want to make sure are embedded in the ecosystem that we participate in. We hope that our principles can be exported around the world. Specifically, we’re talking about principles like privacy by design, user-centric approaches, and security. For us, privacy is not a “nice to have”, it’s a “must have”. These are some examples of Canadian principles are critical. We’re building these principles into our standards while we also work by reference to identify other standards around the world that could help us in our journey.

Q: Verifying one’s digital ID is becoming the norm with apps such as AirBnb, which require people to authenticate their address, identity, and more. Why has the public sector been slow to embrace authentication in comparison?

A: Another big challenge that we’re tackling at the DIACC is to communicate the crucial issues, drivers, opportunities, risks, and challenges around digital identity. The conversation that we would have with a CIO or software engineer may be very different than the conversation that we would have with varying Members of Parliament (MPs). It’s a big challenge to communicate in language that is easy to understand by the ultimate beneficiaries: Canadian consumers and governments.

To that end, regarding the government’s uptake, part of the DIACC’s responsibility is to help enable the government or public sector to provide digital services that underpin Canadian confidence and trust. Historically, governments have played a role in underpinning our confidence and trust in transactions in the physical world by establishing rules tools that help us have confidence in our daily life. That being said, change can be challenging or any large organization – including governments. If we look at the digital transformation, some of the greatest challenge are not around the technologies or the exciting innovations. The greatest challenges are around changing the everyday processes that people follow.

Personally speaking, I think that concepts around privacy and transparency are continually shifting. Information that people may have once considered private even a few years ago may now be easily logged in social networks. One way of addressing Privacy by Design is to support the development of tools to help Canadians make decisions about what they share, with whom, and for what purpose. These types of tools are needed to support Canadian confidence in the digital economy. DIACC helps to identify and develop the standards and market accelerating research that helps business, legal and technical audiences to better understand evolving economic opportunities.

Q: What are some of the potential uses of digital ID authentication in government service delivery and citizen engagement?

A: As a new immigrant to Canada, there were many times when I expected that the federal government would have shared specific information about me to the provincial government in order to speed up my onboarding into provincial government services, but that didn’t happen. I was surprised that the federal immigration authority wasn’t able to provide information about me to the province.  In our vision, ideally, new residents could have a secure and convenient way to interact with governments and manage sharing or verification of personal information.

When thinking about service delivery and citizen engagement, PlaceSpeak sets a great example of how a privacy-respecting and user-controlled service can help both residents and policy decision makers to gather actionable information regarding what neighbourhoods really want, and what some of the dissenting thoughts are.

Being able to run those kinds of consultations with greater assurance that the results are actionable, accurate and relevant is great. These kinds of tools help governments determine where resources need to be allocated. Our vision is that the DIACC work can provide the tools and technology to help businesses and governments to deliver services more innovatively and efficiently.

Q: What is the role that public and private sector organizations work together to further advance the creation of a digital identity ecosystem?

A: The DIACC is a coalition of public and private sector leaders who are committed to making these types of solutions work by collaborating to help address these types of questions. The DIACC was formed as a result of the Ministry of Finance’s Task Force for the Payments System Review in 2010, and rightly so, the DIACC founders recognized that digital identity is a horizontal that cuts across all kinds of sectors. It’s important for public sector, it’s important for private sector, healthcare, mobile, telecommunications, and more.

In Canada, there are at least 14 different roots of identity establishment – federal, provincial, territorial. Because our governance is federated, we require a federated model for how digital identity verification. The work and innovation around digital identity is bigger than any one organization or government. It will take significant and sustained collaboration to reach our vision.There’s an old proverb that says, “alone we go fast, together we go far”. We want to go far and all of Canada is working together.  

The spirit of collaboration is in our roots and the DIACC is a neutral convener that organizes the market forces of Canada to develop standards, to create proofs of concept and applied research to create the innovation and capacity that we need in Canada to take advantage of, and develop innovation, to prepare our workforce for today and the future.

Q: Do you have anything else to add?

A: We have great opportunities ahead in Canada. We’re small enough to be agile, and large enough to be significant. We have a spirit of cooperation and collaboration from our federated model of governance, and we have lots of great cultural and organizational aspects working in our favour. We have strong international partnerships, and in the global landscape, Canada is a very exciting place to be right now for digital ID innovation.

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