What is an identity card and what is its purpose?

The history of passports and national identity cards slightly differs. The shape and format of the majority of today’s identity cards was only standardized in 1985, as opposed to the passports’ standardization in 1920. In the past decade, however, the national identity card documents went through a real transformation. 

Napoleon Bonaparte is considered the main precursor of national ID cards. In 19th century France, Napoleon clarified property rights and introduced new bureaucratic policies. Napoleon was also responsible for introducing a system of internal ID documents for workers between 1803-1804. And, although the system was intended for French workers only, it prompted other leaders to start introducing similar identification systems in their countries.

For instance, Sultan Mahmud II, impressed by the success of the Napoleonic reforms, in 1844 introduced national ID cards to the Ottoman empire. It is important to note, however, that not many countries would follow the movement until World War II, when the identity document systems started to be introduced by nations’ leaders to strengthen their security. 

Today, national identity cards exist in over 100 countries in the world. They are used as an identity document that can be presented in cases of – for example, but not limited to – national voting (i.e presidential elections), traveling, undergoing banking procedures (opening an account, applying for a loan) or buying age-restricted products. Those situations are based on three pillars of citizens’ daily use of national IDs – proving their identity, crossing borders, accessing remote services. 

The widely known definition of a national identity card describes it as a document typically issued in the form of a credit card-sized plastic card, with digitally embedded personal information and a picture of its rightful owner.

The evolution of the national IDs

However, it is important to note that the widely known definition of a national identity card – often mentioning and describing its physical, tangible characteristics and features – can soon be a thing of the past, at least to some extent. 

It all comes down to the fact that in the past two decades, national identity cards have transformed significantly. The reason for that is the global transformation of technology and the development of solutions that influenced how identity documents are produced, personalized, accessed and used. 

National IDs have come a long way, from paper-based booklets and hand-written cards without any security features that would even remotely resemble those we can find on our ID documents today. Today, the ID cards – instead of being issued on paper –  are issued in the form of polycarbonate cards, and include several security features, such as (but not limited to) holograms, fluorescent overlays and barcodes. 

Currently, the strongest influence that shaped and defined trends for national IDs has, without a doubt, been the development of biometric technology.

Biometrics refer to distinctive, personal biological traits that can be used to identify a person. This includes characteristics such as fingerprints, palm prints and hand geometry, DNA, face recognition, iris recognition, retina and vein scans.

In the past few years, a visible shift towards biometric technology could be observed in the case of developing national IDs. The major transformation included the introduction of a NFC chip – a new security feature that allows contactless scan and retrieval of personal information, including fingerprints, an image of holder’s face, and other biometric features. Data included in the documents and stored in a chip might vary from country to country, depending on national regulations and requirements.

The influence of COVID-19 pandemic on national IDs

Since early 2020 – the year marked by the global pandemic – the worldwide restrictions have accelerated the shift towards the contactless solutions and pushed the governments around the world to transform the national ID systems and adapt them to newly developed standards. 

One of the biggest challenges faced by the institutions around the world, was to stay compliant with strict regulations regarding KYC (Know Your customer) and AML (Anti-Money Laundering) policies. As a result, digital onboarding and identity verification solutions’ popularity and use significantly increased. The biometric technology is one of the strongest filars of said solutions, allowing the use of solutions such as facial recognition or iris and fingerprint scans on-the-go or solutions that retrieve data from chips being a part of ID cards and documents. 

Fully-Verified offers a video-based identity verification solution that combines advantages of human and artificial intelligence (AI). Two models of identity verifications designed by Fully-Verified – Self-Verify (the automated process which the user undertakes on their own) and Live-Verify (live video verification with an operator) use facial recognition software that allows to confirm the ownership of a document. Moreover, the operator is able to confirm the authenticity of the document by assessing the security features and the authenticity of automatically-retrieved personal information. 

New European regulations shaping the future of national ID cards in Europe  

European Regulation (EU) 2019/1157 came into force in August 2021. This regulation is said to have changed the national identity market. Its purpose is, primarily, to harmonize the national IDs throughout Europe in order to strengthen the security of national identity card systems, as well as resident cards issued by the members of the European Union. Strengthening and harmonization of ID cards’ security features will prevent the forgery more efficiently, which – according to the European Commission – will allow authorities to better fight against terrorism and organised crime, as well as identity theft. 

According to the new regulations, new national identity cards will be required to include a Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ) in order to be compliant with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), contain a chip and be made of solid plastic (polycarbonate) instead of paper. Said chip is required to store data such as a facial image and two fingerprints of a holder, described to be the most secure way to confirm the identity of a holder and an additional layer of protection against falsification and attempts of identity theft. 

The new generation of electronic national ID cards (eIDs) will have one of the best identity theft protection, as well as they will also allow the governments to create and implement new online solutions. Those solutions will allow citizens to create their own mobile identity and access public services online, such as online health, government, tax declarations, e-voting and remote educational platforms. 

The ID cards – not only in Europe, but globally – have undergone a real transformation that contributed to increasing the security level of identity verification. Through the implementation of solutions that significantly made forgery and identity theft attempts more difficult, the level of security for both – citizens and institutions, have greatly increased.  

Trends regarding the national identity cards and identity documents in general, not only have changed their form or the way they are structured, but also the way citizens worldwide access and use their identity documents, as well as verify their identity. By adjusting the format of the identity documents and opening the way to the use of electronic documents (eIDs, e-ID cards), governments have adapted to the requirements posed by social and technological changes and paving the way to completely remote solutions. 

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