Former CIO warns that Canada lacks the ‘building blocks’ of digital economy

By on 15/10/2019
Benay says Canada has become “too comfortable in the old way of doing things” and that adjustment is needed to ensure the building blocks of the digital economy are in place

Alex Benay, Canada’s former chief information officer, has warned that officials are not making sufficient progress on digital identity, which he argues is the cornerstone of a digital economy.  

Speaking with Global Government Forum, Benay – who announced his departure from government in August, and has since joined Artificial Intelligence firm MindBridge Ai as chief client officer – noted that “most countries that have been successful in the industrial age have had a hard time pivoting to the digital reality, and a digital identity is part of that. In Canada we’ve got pockets of things going on on the identity piece, but it’s on the corner of people’s desks, off the radar and not supported politically.” 

Benay argued that as well as a stronger digital identity system, Canada also needs a “machine-to-machine highway” providing the infrastructure needed to move data easily and securely. He cited Estonia’s X-road – a set of security and communications protocols that permits safe, rapid transmission of data between a highly distributed set of databases and digital systems – as the perfect example.

“We don’t have that in Canada,” he said. “We have a prototype [national identity recognition engine] that’s been built that is very promising, but again it’s corner of people’s desks, it’s not front and centre in their economic discussions. In fact, the senior leaders of the country have gone as far as to tell me in the past that they think the conversation would fall on deaf ears, which means that we’re just too comfortable in the old way of doing things. We need to adjust, because the building blocks of the digital economy aren’t there.”

Digital backbone

Benay was speaking with Global Government Forum after he wrote an article for The Globe and Mail, in which he argued that Canada “has done very little to provide its citizens with a digital backbone”. He believes that while there’s a need for a public debate about modern-day privacy laws and regulatory leadership, and a full set of rights for citizens, the “first, easier step may be to provide Canadians with a digital identity”.

“We have driver’s licences, health cards, passports and other such mechanisms, but these outdated identity models no longer work,” Benay wrote. “We go online without any protection; we interact with governments or service providers without assurance our identity will be managed properly.”

As well as helping to protect privacy, Benay argued in the article, a strong digital identity system could lead to more secure and convenient services: “Imagine a world where Expedia could renew your passport because both it and the government of Canada abide by national digital identity protocols? It would be a world where you reacquire the choice and the control of the services you want, where you want them, and on the platforms or devices of your choice.”

Economic boost

He also argued that a digital identity system would benefit the national economy, citing the Digital ID and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC). This body has estimated that digital identity could provide Can$4.5bn (US$3.4bn) of annual added value to small and medium-sized enterprises, and that the value of digital identity to the Canadian economy is at least 1% of GDP, or Can$15bn (US$11.4bn).

“What this country needs is a bold new policy direction on digital nation-building,” he wrote in The Globe and Mail. “Canada needs a digital identity strategy that is funded, cross sector, and that is all-encompassing in order to protect its citizens and guarantee continued growth in a digital economy. Simply put, Canada needs a digital backbone in a new digital age.”

The CIO Strategy Council – the only body accredited by the Standards Council of Canada that focuses exclusively on technology standards, where Benay is co-chair – is to create the country’s first national standard on digital identity. Benay says this will create a framework “to put everyone on the same page and act as the first step toward regulation”.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

4 Comments

  1. Frank

    16/10/2019 at

    Wasn’t it your responsibility as the GC CIO to address that in your two or so years before you bowed out Mr. Benay?

  2. Steph D

    16/10/2019 at

    Mr. Benay, clearly the federal government is lacking on numerous fronts, as you so eloquently laid out. Given you were responsible for advancing many of these initiatives, why did you fail?

  3. J.Wa

    16/10/2019 at

    it is easy to see a problem….I hope this is a way to try reach the deaf ears he preached to for his tenure as CIO

  4. billy bob

    17/10/2019 at

    The problem in Canada is NOT technology, but ownership of the responsibility and accountability for what personal information is repurposed for, especially given the multiple jurisdictions who are collecting and authenticating information. Example: citizenship information is authenticated by Provinces / territories (birth certificates) and by federal authorities (immigration, births from outside Canada to Canadian citizens, . . .)

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