For many of us, the first time we gained an official identity was with a passport, driver’s licence, or other paper based document that gave us permission to do something, because it proved that we had established our ‘bona fides’ to the authorities.

Over the last 20 years, paper processes have evolved to electronic data, and consequently, paper documents are used less often in the verification process people have to go through when interacting with regulation and authority. This change has stemmed from organisations like credit reference agencies such as Experian, who can validate an identity using trusted data – digitally, faster, and smarter.

This system has served us well, but now it has run its course, and is no longer inclusive of today’s needs and expectations. We are now a digital age and, consequently, identity and email verification must enter it too. Identity is on the cusp of a great change. And many in the enterprise are not yet sure how to manage the new technologies promising to revolutionise the process for them and their customers.

The Evolution Of Digital Identities

Identity has evolved. The rise of digital adoption from society and mobile usage, and the introduction of new authentication regulations have all contributed toward this change. In a data driven, hyper-connected world ‘identity’ has been a focus for many businesses, governments and regulators.

The surge of omni-channel customers and hyper-connectivity has changed the way customers and businesses interact and how products and services are delivered. The pace of change is accelerating all the time and increasing because of rising digital/mobile use – giving people online accessibility anytime, anywhere. Organisations create omni-channel journeys which take people on and offline. This can then cause friction when an identity is passed across channels because switching from one channel to another has, until comparatively recently in the enterprise digital journey, not been a seamless handover.

But surely an identity should be easily transferable? It’s a footprint that is unique to the individual that they should be able use to validate and authenticate themselves anywhere. Although it is formed of multiple components, the fundamentals haven’t changed. What has however is the way in which people can translate and demonstrate their identity to validate, authenticate and authorise given the multitude of digital services now available.

This transition from paper to digital, from passwords to the increasing use of biometrics, has been very rapid considering where we have come from and where we are today. The next 5 years are likely to bring truly unprecedented change to the way the public establishes and verifies its identity online. Biometric information and social media accounts could become the bedrock of new styles personal digital identity.

So, how will that change work for the customer and businesses? Experian conducted a series of surveys to understand what people thought about the future of identity, and in particular certain elements such as regulation and biometrics.

Are physical documents defunct? Some say that the drive to introducing a digital identity could leave physical documents obsolete. In today’s digital world, as a society we still haven’t fully adopted an entirely paperless society.

Transactions and accounts are opened online, yet just more than half (51%) of people keep paper based accounts, particularly females older than 55 as a segment. Businesses start to engage customers’ digitally, for example using online applications, but then command paper-contracts and offline validation – for example when applying for a mortgage. Frankly, at times it’s confusing for consumers just why paper based processes are sometimes used in part of an otherwise totally digital set of proceedings.

Yet as a society we are making headway and digital signatures are more common, as are digital receipts for retail (by email or text) and the elimination of physical car tax discs in the UK. There are still a wide range of key documents including birth and death certificates, and passports for example, which are necessary to keep as physical documents to enable some of life’s most important situations to be recorded officially known.

And whilst we are fully immersed in a digital age, not everyone within it can be authenticated electronically as there isn’t enough known data about them. Some people make less of an electronic record, or are excluded in some way from a fully digital life, perhaps through disability. Therefore, there must be an alternative way to prove their identity to avoid them being excluded.

This is also essential for businesses as regulations stipulate they need to ensure an identity is proven. Some debate that online identities can be faked in the same way paper based copies can. However, as we move toward chipped and biometric documents, it gives the balance of both. A key development will be the creation of trusted digital identities based on the presentation of a mixture of document and electronic based evidence. The GOV.UK/Verify solution is a first adopter of this approach.

For the foreseeable future, the need for physical documents will remain as we maintain mixed digital and physical world. However, organisations need to consider how they blend digital (including email verification) and physical ID to support everyone’s preferences – compliantly. Moving forward, digital IDs will also present a cost saving opportunity for organisations through automation removing the manual form reviewing process. It will also appeal more to the customer and enhance the customer experience to reduce the labour of physically writing (and possible correcting!) on paper.

But for now, online service providers will need to continue to cater for paper-based proofs being used by a minority for some years to come. The scales will begin to decisively shift to the digital for many more applications as tools are rolled out and accepted by enterprises more broadly – and of course, as consumers understand the time and memory savings inherent in such ways of proving identity online.