Logging In and Providing Proof: A Guide to U.S. Government Actions on Digital Identity

Proving you are who you say you are, especially when using an online government portal or service, is not always easy or straightforward. Most adults carry an identification card in their wallet and can show that ID when they are filling out a form at a doctor’s office or conducting a business transaction. There is no single equivalent for confirming identity online. As a result, we memorize numerous user IDs and passwords, learn to enter codes texted or emailed to us, and develop a list of secret questions. To no avail, however, since not an hour goes without a news media report of stolen identities, data breaches, and phishing attacks.

There is a crucial need for a national digital identity national strategy, backed by standards that take into account equity, accessibility, privacy, data protection, potential harms and disparate impacts, evolving security threats, and future technologies. Currently, the U.S. government has task forces, standards, pilot projects, and has begun to deploy tools and services aimed towards developing a shared, national digital infrastructure for authentication and identity proofing in the United States. However, these efforts are spread across multiple agencies and are not unified under a guiding strategy, implementation approach, or a common investment.  

In our new guide, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University provides a detailed overview summarizing the many initiatives and activities from Congress, the White House, federal agencies, and coalitions which may impact the digital identity landscape in the United States, including at state, local, Tribal, and territorial levels. Communications about these efforts too often describe them in isolation of each other, rather than outlining how they work within an ecosystem and how they may influence—and at times—contradict each other. We believe that to guide actions moving forward, it is important for the field to understand how these actions and initiatives work together, the different components of digital identity, and criteria to evaluate available options. Throughout this document, we will provide readers with additional resources and information. We hope that this resource is useful to civic technologists, state and local government agencies, technologists, advocates, students, future public interest technologists, and journalists.

Key actions include: 

  • Digital Identity Standards — The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) sets the digital identity guidelines for authentication and identity proofing, for federal systems; while they are not requirements for state, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, NIST’s guidelines influence industry solutions and provide a framework for assessing digital identity models. NIST has a draft revision of the guidelines, with an increased focus on equity and usability. 
  • Shared Digital Infrastructure — Login.gov, a project housed at the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Technology Transformation Service (TTS), offers a federal shared digital infrastructure for authentication and identity proofing. In recent years, the service became available to federally-funded programs at the state and local level. 
  • Legislative Action — Recent Congressional efforts have addressed digital identity in distinct ways, including proposals for a more comprehensive national strategy around digital identity as well as proposed bans on facial recognition and biometric identification in specific contexts.
  • Addressing Identity Theft and Combating Fraud — Federal agencies and Congress have investigated fraudulent activity in pandemic relief programs, primarily orchestrated by organized criminal groups. There are multiple federal level initiatives underway, including at the White House, to prevent identity theft and support victims, modernize unemployment systems, and improve the digital identity ecosystem as part of a national cybersecurity strategy.
  • Technology Demonstrations, Pilots, and Rollouts — Federal agencies are currently testing and deploying new digital identity technologies, including facial recognition and mobile driver’s licenses (mDLs) in various contexts including in demonstration events, and at airports and U.S. borders. These projects have implications for shared technical understanding and also raise important questions about the use of new technologies, particularly biometrics. 

View the full guide on the Digital Benefits Hub.

If you’re newer to the topic of digital identity, the Digital Benefits Network has created introductory resources including a glossary of key terms, a primer about what digital identity is, and an explainer on how digital identity is used in the administration and distribution of public benefits. In early December 2022, we published a resource about federal activity around digital identity, however, there have been many new updates since that resource was published. 

Additionally, the Digital Benefits Network has an ongoing research agenda about identity proofing and authentication practices. This agenda includes data and analysis on identity proofing and authentication practices in core social safety net programs such as about Unemployment Insurance (UI), with data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), Medicaid, and child care applications to be released in the coming months in collaboration with Code for America.