Bill Foster talks digital identity

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) leaves the Capitol.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) leaves the Capitol. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The stars may finally be aligning for comprehensive digital identity legislation to pass in Congress. If it does, the Illinois Democrat will be a big reason why.

In the age of increasing government digital services, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) is zeroing in on the question of digital identity – how do you know that someone is who they say they are online.

Foster is the lead sponsor of the Improving Digital Identity Act, introduced in 2020 and again in 2021. Earlier this summer, it got a Senate companion from Sens. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo) and advanced out of a House committee.

The bill proposes a role in a federated digital identity system for Washington, potentially via agencies providing opt-in identity validation services. It would also set up a grant program at the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate interoperable state and local systems for digital identity verification.

Foster, a PhD physicist, chairs subcommittees in the Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

FCW: What are the main goals for your digital identity bill?

Foster: This would start bringing the government up to the standards that some in the business community are moving to – to allow users to present a high quality digital credential to prove they are who they say they are. A lot of this piggybacks on the state mobile ID efforts where the National Institute of Standards and Technology set technical and interoperability standards several years ago.

FCW: A main impact of the bill would be giving the government a real role in the digital identity game. What would this look like in practice?

Foster: It would look very much like the state governments issuing REAL ID compliant digital driver's licenses.

Transitioning [credentials] to electronic form has huge advantages in being able to authenticate yourself online as a single legally traceable person, while at the same time only turning over the information necessary for a transaction.

The classic example of this is if you want to buy alcohol, you have to prove you're a certain age and a resident of the state and that's all they really need to know. They don't have to know your home address or anything else about you. There are ways to use digital driver's licenses to prove only the minimum for a transaction, so it actually can enhance privacy.

FCW: What has the reception been like?

Foster: I think among the general public, the fear of your privacy being invaded by someone impersonating you online is a much more real fear than simply the existence of a state database that already exists. 

An important point of the mobile ID is that it doesn't require a new biometric database… It's very important to a lot of particularly my Republican colleagues, that there is no big federal database associated with this. We're simply using the already existing biometric database behind the real IDs issued by individual states.

The advantage is that you have a standard way to prove you are who you say you are that works around the country… The IRS got into a lot of trouble by contracting this out to a private company, and I think there's a lot of nervousness in the public about the idea that some private company is going to be the gatekeeper on digital identity.

It [also] has the advantage that you no longer have … several identities in different states, and that is the root of a lot of identity fraud. That's pretty much impossible with a Real ID compliant driver's license.

FCW: Did the pandemic and all the identity theft that's cropped up change the conversation?

Foster: This is actually the answer to [fraud] – if we had the standards for how you authenticate yourself to the government online and they had been widely adopted prior to COVID, a huge fraction of the identity fraud would have been prevented. 

This is not something that you would have to force people to use if they do not want. It just means that if you're willing to present a digital ID, your transaction could go through very rapidly… If you choose not to do it, then those will be the cases where the government will pay special attention.

FCW: The emphasis on choice is something I also hear come up a lot when people talk about how to make progress in this digital identity space.

Foster: If you're asking the government to write you a big check for whatever reason, then I think you have a duty to the rest of society to go through some effort to make sure you're not defrauding the taxpayer. I think people actually accept that.

The financial services industry is very excited about this because you now will have one-stop know your customer requirements. If you want to go and open a bank account, you can show up and if you're able and willing to present a REAL ID compliant mobile ID, you're in.

The standardization of the means of authenticating will generate a lot more efficiencies … and that's one of the reasons to get all of the government agencies together, which is one of the major points of our legislation, and then also to have standards for issuing this credential and so on that are more or less standard across government.

FCW: Why and how did this issue get on your agenda? 

Foster: I got into this whole business because of an interest in central bank digital currencies, which is obviously on everyone's mind. We have to do something to answer China and central bank digital currencies, but even in the simplest possible system, say everyone has an account with the Fed … the first question you have to answer is, how do you authenticate yourself as the owner of this account without making some new national ID card system?

The existence of the REAL ID compliant system in all the states combined with technological standards for presenting that ID in all areas, that's the way to prove your are you say you are. 

FCW: It seems like you're optimistic about the bill's prospects.

Foster: We have good bipartisan partners in this… We negotiated with our Senate partners on word for word identical versions of this. 

Now Senators Loomis and Sinema are carrying the ball in the Senate… It's not beyond the pale to imagine that it might get included in one of the future packages that we may be able to pass or something that could get done in the lame duck session. Either one of those is a real possibility.