Chhimi Dema 

Bhutanese look forward to seeing transformation in public service delivery with the National Digital Identity (NDI) project already underway.

While people feel NDI holds a lot of promise, they also raised concerns over digital gaps and privacy.

NDI was launched on February 21 this year. The project would provide a platform for every Bhutanese and all visitors to uniquely identify oneself and authenticate their identity (equivalent to being physically present) to any service provider.

Project officials said that the project will be rolled out this year. The upcoming Parliament session will discuss the National Digital Identity Act which will supersede the current Information and Media Act 2018.

Sonam, a bank employee, said that she is concerned about the widening digital gap that is already seen in the country.

“Illiterate people might resist the new technology. And if they are assisted to use the technology there could be risk of data breach,” she said.

Sonam said that if the developers consider the challenges in Bhutan and think of practical solutions applicable to the country then NDI would be “very useful”.

“Our smallness would be an advantage while implementing the technology,” she added.

According to “A Study on Bhutan’s Readiness for HM’s Vision of Digital Drukyul by Assessing the Digital Literacy Among Different Cohorts” carried out last year by the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Studies, 80 percent of civil servants who took part in the study indicated that their information and communications technology skills were basic or intermediate.

The study stated that it was alarming as these sectors represent the majority of the population that has been provided with ICT training by the government.

Considering the poor digital literacy among the civil servants, people express concerns over how illiterate would adapt to the technology.

The study revealed that the lowest level of digital literacy was with the use of database applications and e-safety awareness.

Sonam Phuntsho, a civil servant, said that NDI is timely as the country moves into the digital era.

“With a click, we will be able to apply for any services that are integrated with the NDI system. Public service delivery will be immensely enhanced,” he said.

Sonam Phuntsho said that illiterate citizens might face challenges to use NDI. “Some do not know how to use a smartphone so using an application such as NDI might be out of the question.”

A technology enthusiast said that having one login to access everything makes it easy for people to keep track of all necessary information about themselves.

“However, I worry that not many Bhutanese are digitally literate to access and secure their own login,” he said. “Because most of us might not be able to use the login ourselves, we will end up giving it to others to access our information on our behalf.  This is dangerous.”

Another issue that might arise with NDI is its security. “Even now, many government systems have exploitable loopholes.”

He cited an example of the Department of Revenue and Customs system which generates a TPN number with CID number and date of birth after which you can login into their RAMIS system. When asked for a password, you could simply request to reset it and the default password would be the same for everyone. You could log into that person’s tax records using the details.

“Imagine if that exploit could get me access to every piece of information that the government has on you. This is what makes me nervous,” he added.

With NDI, a company called Bhutan NDI would come into existence.

The company will be responsible to ensure digital inclusion, monitor standards from around the world and make sure NDI adopts new standards so that the credentials in the wallet is accepted globally.

Druk Holding and Investments’ Chief Technology Officer, Jacques von Benecke, in a previous interview said that NDI has a roadmap to onboard users in phases.

He said they have planned what population can login first and how to include everyone gradually. “There are many different technologies and ways that we are looking at making sure we have proper digital inclusion.”

For further digital inclusion and accessibility, there are five types of digital wallet such as edge, custodial, guardian, cloud and remote wallet as part of NDI.

The edge wallet is for those who are digitally aware, custodial wallets for children with access given to their parents until their legal age, and guardian wallet for those who aren’t digitally aware.

If you don’t have a device then you can store the wallet in the cloud, or have a wallet on a USB stick as a remote wallet.

Jacques von Benecke said that countries like Canada have been working on self-sovereign identity for eight years now.

“The reason for a lot of these countries struggling to deploy is because they have existing digital identities which are centralised. To work with the governments to move it from being centralised to decentralised is very hard,” he said.

Bhutan is in a unique position with guidance from His Majesty The King and support from the government, and the country is recognised as being the world leader in the decentralised digital identity space, he said.

NDI is developed by Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) for GovTech Bhutan.