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Advocating for Decentralised Identity in Europe: 7 Lessons Learnt


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Hello everyone. My name is Sebastian Manhart. I'm a former identity entrepreneur, and I now advise governments, but also startups on digital identity. And today I'm here to talk to you about the seven lessons I've learned advocating for decentralized identity across Europe. I'm starting from the reality that I'm seeing that digital identity and decentralized identity in particular has taken Europe by storm. And for me, it's not a question of if, but really how, and when this is gonna unfold across the continent. And I'm seeing a couple of players who could win the race. You've got European technology providers. You've got, you know, the big tech providers from the us. You've got regulators, you've got politicians. And I hope that today I can shed a little bit of light into who I think is currently at the top, at the front at the back. And why that is the case.
Why am I here? Why am I talking to you? Like pretty much everyone here? Probably I didn't. I stumbled into digital identity after my university years in London and Cambridge, I decided to set up a nonprofit biometrics company called Simran and actually did work all across the world, providing very vulnerable populations with identities to access basic services. And that was amazing. Work worked again across the world, reached 2 million people, scaled the company, but it was heavily centralized, functional identity. You know, if you're working in Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, you don't have every person with a smartphone in their hands. So you kind of rely on heavily centralized identity systems. And I started to feel a bit uneasy about that because I would be to put it bluntly with a minister who wanted all the biometric date of his citizens under his desk on his, you know, laptop.
And yeah, that didn't sit right with me. And so I became more and more interested in alternative approaches to identity. And early last year, 2021, I left my startup to join the German government. For what I thought at the time was really unique. I don't know how much you followed. Many of you, especially in Berlin will be familiar with it. But then under Ang Angela Merkel, I joined the Chancellory, which is the extended office of at the time Anglo Merkel. She took the topic of identity under her wing, which is very rare because identity is a sensitive topic that many politicians try to stay clear from. And not only that, but she also decided to push for it with a decentralized angle, decentralized methodology. So for me, this was as I'm Germany, telling myself was super interesting. I was like, okay, I need to get on board with that.
And my job, I was essentially asked to influence the rest of Europe on behalf of the government. So the other 27 member states the European commission, which was just about to start working on the second draft of the I to try to get us all into a similar direction, in fact, a based on decentralized principles. So that was my task. And just to some of you might know the project when a bit off the rails last year, it had grant ambitions, but then, you know, there was a launch for mobile driving license. Last September, didn't go particularly well. I'm not here to talk about that because my focus was European, not domestic, but if you want to have a chat about it later, feel free to grab me. But my job was really to network my way around, you know, from, from, from kind of working level all the way to vice president across all 27 member states and form alliances with other governments around decentralized identity, you might have heard of the ones with the Netherlands, with Spain, with Finland, which I kind of set up and negotiated.
And so this is how I got exposed to this. And I got a lot of learnings about, I would say the public sector view of how this race is unfolding with the changing government. I changed my job too, because as you might know, the project was kind of taken out of the chance, re put back into the ministry of the interior, which for me, I'm gonna talk about some of the impacts of that. I actually think that that was, you know, took away some of its ambition and some of the political backing that it had. So I left and I now work advising the world bank, but also working as an independent advisor to startups and companies that are trying to work in Europe. So I'm gonna share seven lessons learned here today, and they're really meant to give you an idea of they're mainly challenges really that I've encountered, and they're meant to help you collaborate with the government.
Because very much like my colleague McKeel, who I know very well, he highlighted at the end, how, you know, his appeal was to you and this, I have the same to work more closely with government. He invited you to work with government, but there are a lot of obstacles. And so I think it's helpful to understand these optical obstacles to work with him before diving in though. I'll quickly say what I mean with decentralized identity. I think this term has been dropped many times today, but nobody's ever defined it. So I'm just very briefly gonna say what I mean. And I see it basically as the last phase in the natural evolution of digital identity, you know, we're starting off with centralized identities where we all create individual passwords and accounts. Hundreds of times over, we move to federated identities like this Google single sign on, which provides massive utility.
You just create one account and access many services, but it creates also, you know, a dependency and you give away all your usage behavior. And the last step that I currently see at least myself is decentralized self-managed self-sovereign identity. I'll kind of use that synonymously today, which essentially gives the user back control over how they use the data where they give it away and how, and also nobody can see what you do online when you're navigating. Just one more word of caution. I'm deliberately framing and phrasing things here in a generalized, slightly provocative manner. I know that Europe is a very heterogeneous continent, 27 member states. No two are the same. So of course there's a lot more nuances, but I can't pack that into 15 minutes. So just bear that in mind as I go through these. So let's dive into it. Lesson one, civil service and political leaders are not in sync.
This is something I witnessed almost everywhere. And you might have some really, you know, advanced, progressive thinking ministers, even heads of state, secretaries of state, but, and they give grand press conferences that EV the media write about, but then they don't have the civil servants on the same page to actually execute. And the same is through the other way around, I've met evangelists in the civil service who are really cutting edge and thinking have great ideas of what to implement in their government, but then they have no traction, no backing by the higher ups to implement. And so this is a, this really puts a stall in a lot of great projects that I've seen a great exception to. This is for example, Spain, at least in the field of identity, where I see a lot of the stars aligning after a lot of hard work.
So it's definitely a country to watch, but again, that's rare in Germany. I think we had some of that when it was under Ang and Merkel, but now that you've kind of taken away the top level political backing, I find it back into kind of square one where it was before second one. And the gift here is not working. Otherwise this would be a bit funnier, but the government does not understand tech and vice versa, which essentially, you know, if you go into government, they really struggle to attract and hire technical talent. And what does that mean? That when they, when they want to implement projects, they have to go to big consultancies who, with the best ambitions and intentions themselves, don't always have the technical expertise to implement these projects. And on the other hand, you have technology companies that are developing cutting edge technology, but they're not really talking to government.
They don't really understand government. And in the case of web three, they actively trying to circumvent it and they are quite proud of that, right? So you kind of see that they're, they're going in two different direction. And actually Quill is a great example, but I find rare example of somebody who moved from technology, private sector into government. And that's something that is still in my experience a bit too rare, and we definitely need to get more information and talent flow between these two sectors. If we want to implement great technology projects, lesson three, that the private sector lacks a voice in both national and international processes. And I'll give you this starts from the assumption I have that we really need. As mic also said, we need both actors at the table to develop something great. And if I look at, for example, the German example, first, you have the BVK, which is a ministry that is very close to industry into the private sector.
They are working on identity. They've got the shelf INTA director, which I think many of you are involved in, but they don't have the main mandate for identity in Germany. The man mandate comes from the ministry of the interior, but in Germany, at least they are not very close to the private sector at large, only really to technology and service providers. And at the European level, if you look at the EI, does, you know, as a reminder piece of legislation that will determine how European identity is UN unrolled in, in Europe, you've got a toolbox group, which is a group of seconded national experts that are determining today what the technical ramifications and specifications of identity in this continent will be. But again, they're mainly seconded for ministry of the interior, and there's no by design inclusion of private sector in that process. And I see that their private companies are trying to bully and lobby their way into the process, but it's not set up by design to be that inclusive.
And for me, again, that's a problem that needs to be addressed. If we want to create something together and lesson four legacy systems are here to stay. This for me was particularly interesting because I worked a lot in the global south and I worked in countries where often there was nothing set up before. And that was actually huge advantage because if the minister wanted to set up a fully digitized health system, they could just go ahead and do it. And within five to 10 years, it was set up in Europe. We don't have that luxury. Every country has dozens, hundreds of legacy systems that took a lot of financial investments. But what I really noticed took a lot of emotional investment. You know, you have civil servants, who've worked on these systems for 5, 10, 20, 30 years, and it's their life's purpose to maintain those systems. And so it's really tricky when you suddenly ask them to move forward and move to something else is a good example. Again, you've got E Ida 1.0, which frankly didn't work. And, you know, I think 18 countries ended up investing in it. User traction was very small. And yet you hear a lot of language around. We need to build on the foundations of the Ida 1.0. Why just because there is kind of this emotional attachment and political reason to stay close to it, but this is gonna be, yeah. Again, put the break on future investments into more progressive technology like decentralized identity.
Again, another gift the gifts are not working today. This would've been another good one. So I'm personally a big proponent of web three decentralization, blockchain. But what I noticed was that there's just not a lot of understanding around what it actually means and what it can mean for service delivery in the public sector. And add to this, that civil society. For example, in this country has very strong views on P on blockchain. Add to this, the data protection authorities across Europe are very skeptical. And that all means that when I was going around beating the drum for, you know, SSI based on blockchain, I suddenly started getting a lot of headwind. And I realized that you should just talk about the principles of, for example, SSI and just leave blockchain out of it. Because I think we still have a long way to go until people actually understand what it means.
And don't instantly through their gut react with really negative associations, less than six. The future is open source. So similarly to blockchain, I, I have the feeling that most people don't actually understand what open source is unlike blockchain, everyone loves it. And so this is something that I think there's very clear advantages to open source, you know, especially trust by civil, by the society at large investments made by one department or ministry or even different governments can aggregate over time. So this is there's very clear examples. And actually the Corona app that I put there is a great European example of what can happen when this is done well, and which is, it was taken up really well by society. There was a lot of trust in it. It was cost efficient, it worked well. And so I definitely think that the future will be open source, but as somebody who used to run a proprietary tech company, I also appreciate the other side and there will be a place for proprietary technology, but very much like Micki also said, vendor lock in is a huge worry of a lot of, you know, government officials.
And so increasingly I think service providers who can realize that technology itself should be open source commoditized, and then focus on the customization of what they're doing will be much more advantage.
And finally, lesson seven, that big tech is moving in very fast. And this is probably the single biggest political driver for action that I see, you know, you look at apple, they've rolled out kind of their pilots of mobile driving licenses in, in some us states, pretty much every big tech company is trying to get in on the identity game, including Europe, and is gonna try to monopolize it as quickly as possible. And let's be real. They're more agile, they're faster. They have more resources. They have more existing users than government does, and government knows that. And so I've seen different reactions to that. One is to be an antagonist, to almost try to fight them and then probably regulate afterwards, which hasn't worked out so well in the past. Another one is to collaborate and I'm seeing some really interesting, but still quite isolated attempts by governments across Europe to try to embrace what is already there in terms of big tech and work together.
But in any case, I think this is a positive because knowing that you have this competition drives better and faster results, for example, in the EI does. Now what's ahead. You might have gathered from the last 10 minutes that, you know, I might be very skeptical about the future of decentralized identity in Europe. And yeah, I mentioned some significant challenges that will have to be overcome, but actually overall, I am very optimistic. I mentioned the challenges because I think we need to be aware of them. But if I think about it two years ago in the public sector, nobody was talking about decentralized identity. Now a lot of people are talking about it. Some governments are really leading the way DEI does is including clear principles of decentralized identity. We might have some does pilots based on SSI. And the private sector in Europe is really flourishing.
Like if I think about globally, Europe is almost yeah, the epicenter of development when it comes to really amazing SSI and decentralized identity tech. So I am very optimistic, but I also, I have a very similar appeal to what you heard in the last presentation, given the audience here for me really, I, I appeal to you all to seek contact with civil servants, with the government and try to foster that exchange of information and of talent, because I don't think we can make it unless we work together on this. And I do think that the benefits could be really massive because if we can create a future in Europe where every citizen can access services in a self-controlled way, without anyone knowing what they're actually doing, that would be amazing. And it could set a gold standard for other countries and regions around the world. So it's definitely something worth working for and yeah, that's it. I hope you took some things away from this and yeah. Thank.

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