DHS looks to invest in digital credentialing

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The department’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program issued a new solicitation looking for privacy-preserving digital credential wallets and verifiers.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program — a part of the agency’s research arm that invests in tech startups with government applications — is looking for digital credentialing solutions for DHS components like Customers and Border Protection.

Specifically, the program is seeking privacy-preserving solutions for digital wallets and mobile verifiers that work with existing standards for verifiable credentials set by the World-Wide Web Consortium, the agency said in an announcement earlier this month.

Companies that participate are eligible for up to $1.7 million to develop and then adapt their tech for homeland security use cases.

“DHS operational components are globally authoritative issuers and verifiers of identifiers, licenses, entitlements, attestations and certifications, a.k.a. credentials, for a variety of purposes,” the solicitation reads, “including immigration, residency status, employment eligibility, travel, training, education, affiliation, benefits delivery, organizational identity and supply chain security.”

The forthcoming investments are meant to “catalyze, develop, enhance and operationalize a set of privacy preserving building blocks that can support the needs of a privacy preserving digital credentialing ecosystem,” it reads. 

DHS gives a few examples of how the tech might be used. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for example, could issue immigration credentials digitally on the CBP One mobile app, which is already being used for migrants seeking asylum to schedule appointments before arriving at ports of entry.

The agency could also issue such credentials to other digital wallets that follow DHS requirements, like those set up by state or other governments. 

Another potential use case is verifying such credentials in-person and online, such as when travelers and U.S. citizens enter the country. 

According to the solicitation, one benefit of privacy-preserving digital wallets and verifiers is informed consent and selective disclosure — meaning that individuals can choose to selectively share only the necessary information for a given interaction, like verifying age to buy alcohol.

In a statement, the innovation program’s managing director, Melissa Oh, said that “preserving the privacy of individuals as they use digital wallets to store their credentials is deeply important in ensuring the secure, confidential nature of their digital interactions in an increasingly interconnected world.”

Greater use of digital credentialing technologies could  “in the long term, minimize the use of biometric matching technologies for identity verification,” the solicitation reads. Biometrics like facial recognition have been contested tools for digital identity verification and subject to questions about bias across race, skin tone and gender.

This isn’t the innovation program’s first time investing in digital credentials. It’s previously made other awards to companies working on credential management and verification.

DHS will hold an industry day for those interested on August 18, and companies have until Sept. 15 to apply for the solicitation.