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How mobile ID conquered Iceland

Iceland is already a leader in digital services. Now, its citizens can use their phones to perform online transactions safely and securely
First published on July 08, 2014

Iceland is famous for its volcanoes, stunning scenery and hot springs, which attract about 650,000 tourists a year. But in addition to being one of the most beautiful nations on the planet, Iceland is a pioneer in providing its citizens with digital services.

The country's latest development is the launch of a mobile ID service. It allows all mobile phone users in Iceland to use strong authentication and legally binding signatures to identify themselves when using government services or performing tasks such as online banking. Icelanders have been using digital signatures since 2008, when all debit cards began to be issued with embedded electronic identification, but the government hopes mobile ID will cause a sharp increase in consumer uptake.

Expanding digital identification to phones simply makes sense for Iceland, where mobile subscription penetration is 110% and mobile broadband penetration is 71%, far above the European average.

"Almost everyone has a phone and many of these are smartphones," says Haraldur Bjarnason (pictured), CEO of Audkenni, the identity solutions company that is implementing mobile ID in Iceland. "The proportion of people who use online banking is more than 90%. So the ground is quite good for using technology like this."

Audkenni, which is joint-owned by Iceland's banks and one of its telecom operators, is responsible for the eID infrastructure in the country. This began back in 2005, when a public-private partnership between the government and the banks led to the launch of digital identity on debit cards in 2008. This technology has allowed citizens to log into services and websites, proving their identity as they do so, but there have been challenges in achieving mass adoption.

"First of all, the cards are not a good fit with mobile devices," Bjarnason says. "Second, using the cards at home required a special reader and installing software onto the computer - it's complicated. In the fast-moving world of operating system and software updates, it is extremely difficult to ensure a consistent quality of experience when there are so many variables."

The mobile ID program - which uses technology from Valimo, a Finnish company owned by Gemalto - skips past this, placing a special SIM card at the center of everything. Citizens who wish to use the mobile service simply need to upgrade to the new SIM. Then, depending on whether they already have an eID debit card, they can transfer their identification online or activate a new account face-to-face in mobile operators' stores.

This simplification should ensure that the service gains more user acceptance, as complexity is the main reason that people shy away from new technology. Having the SIM card at the center of the technology makes it democratic - it can be used by anyone with a mobile phone and not just those with the latest gadgets. The SIM is also secure as it uses the same technology as EMV and eID cards.

Since the service launched at the end of 2013, all government agencies and local municipality services have started accepting mobile ID. "It's early days, but we're moving quickly," Bjarnason says. "All the sites where you could use the debit card identification are upgrading to be compatible with mobile ID."

His short-term target is to make sure this upgrading process is completed, and then he'll work to sign up more mobile operators. Once this is done, there will be a big marketing push in the fall to increase the number of citizens using the service.

Did you know?
Iceland is looking into the possibility of online voting via mobile, like its northern-European neighbors Norway and Estonia.

TAGGED IN mobile id; egovernment; iceland; valimo