The unprecedented events of 2020 have led to a number of developments in the United Kingdom, many of which will be with its citizens for years to come. Social distancing, remote working and self isolation have highlighted some of the benefits of digital transformation for individuals, businesses and the state. However, it is fair to say that the issue of technology and how people use it – and vice versa – is proving to be a thorny subject for the UK’s government.

For those who see online ID and documentation checking as a positive way forward for modern societies, some of the developing situations in Britain will make for disturbing reading. How successfully the government manages the digital economy and society in the coming months could be pivotal for many reasons.

IT’s high profile during lockdown

From the implementation of a national lockdown in the UK in March of 2020, the role of IT, the internet and telecommunications assumed an even greater significance than it had held already. With the closure of educational establishments, in particular, remote learning became the only way most students could receive any teaching. On top of this, the UK’s population were told to work from home wherever possible.

Zoom made its debut into the lives of millions of Britons. From parliament to virtual family get-togethers, this proprietorial piece of software and its boxes became a fixture of national life. As such, Zoom represented a positive contribution which IT could make to normal people’s lives.

At the same time, however, other promised IT-based developments had the opposite effect. In particular, the failure to initiate any kind of track and trace system, as successfully adopted early in other countries, became something of an issue. When the government then held a failed trial on the Isle of Wight, this blow to confidence in IT was compounded.

Concerns over data use

Whatever the perceived merits of IT among the British public, its merits are being promoted by the government. There have been announcements in the press about a desire to introduce a UK-wide digital identity system, to help both during and after the pandemic. With such a system, for example, it is argued that owners of pubs and restaurants will be able to instantly verify a customer’s age.

Civil liberties groups, however, are far from convinced that a national digital ID scheme is either desirable or practicable. They cite examples of abuses both in the UK and abroad. In 2019, the UK government was forced to apologize to EU citizens and its own Windrush subjects for data breaches. Elsewhere, a breach in India in 2018 led to the details of many millions of its citizens being leaked via an insecure ID card.

Careful management needed

There are many examples from across the world where secure, online digital ID verification makes a huge contribution to society and economies. This situation should be possible in the UK going forward, as the country has both the expertise and resources either in place or within reach. How the government negotiates its way through the end of lockdown restrictions and into a “new normal” could define how – or if – the UK is able to harness this technology.