The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Blake Hall, founder and CEO of ID.me, a company based out of McLean, Virginia that provides online identity verification services. Hall discussed how verified digital identities can streamline online transactions for consumers, businesses, and government.
Daniel Castro: What was your motivation for creating ID.me?
Blake Hall: I wanted to empower consumers to control their own information, and to take that power away from data brokers. We aim to make the process of logging into websites and proving your identity as simple as Visa made financial transactions.
Castro: What are some of the most interesting ways that you’ve seen clients start to use your identity verification service?
Hall: It really spans the gamut. At the very top end, we help fight the opioid crisis by verifying doctors so that they can securely prescribe controlled substances online. My wife’s a physician. She had her paper prescription pen and pad compromised by a fraudster who’s been able to prescribe drugs. And so it’s very cool to be able to verify that someone is who they’re claiming to be—that they’re a medical provider—and then tell an app, “Hey, this is somebody who’s in a DEA-certified state, they can securely prescribe drugs, and that’s an actual physician or a nurse practitioner, and it’s not somebody who’s helping fuel the opioid crisis and ruining people’s lives.”
At the other end of the spectrum, we just gave away 250,000 free burritos to healthcare workers with Chipotle. And then you go over to unemployment agencies, and we’re fighting organized crime and the Russians and the Chinese and the Nigerians, and domestic street gangs who are trying to defraud our government, and have defrauded our government before our entry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. And that’s one of the reasons why I love this company.
We had the City of San Diego and a golf course, Torrey Pines, come through. Torrey Pines is the famous golf course where Tiger Woods won the Open on the 18th green. I wondered, “Why in the world is a golf course reaching out to an identity company?” And it turns out that if you’re a San Diego resident, you golf for $50 to play eighteen, whereas if you’re from outside the city, it costs you about $250 to play eighteen. And so verifying that somebody is a San Diego resident was actually a massive operational challenge for the golf course. Torrey Pines is where dreams come to die if you’re on staff because you think you’re going to be on this beautiful golf course and be outside and in nature, and instead, you’re often verifying identity and having tough conversations with people who live just outside the boundaries of what the city deems San Diego.
And so it’s very cool. You learn every day in this business. Because we’re a utility, we support many different applications. And it’s very cool to understand how trust and identity can streamline various workflows and save people and businesses time and money.
Castro: Over the past year, we’ve seen many more businesses move online because of the pandemic. How has your company supported businesses with this type of digital transformation?
Hall: We’ve innovated in the digital space for a long time. We really believed in the vision that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) put forward. Why do folks have to verify their identity and create a new login at every single government agency and financial institution and healthcare organization they visit? Why can’t we just verify them once and let them take their data with them?
So there’s really two aspects where we really push the envelope. I’m an Army veteran, I was an infantry officer, and the core of the American infantry is “no man left behind.” And so we have an ethos here at ID.me, we have, “no identity left behind.” And when I looked at the automated verification flows, they’re pretty much de facto predicated on having a financial history, a presence, and utility records. And so as we traced those foundations down, we said, “Well, who’s less likely to have a presence in financial records?” Well, less affluent Americans. And who’s more likely to be less affluent? Historically disadvantaged communities and minorities. Also, women change their name more often in our society, and so are more likely to be listed inaccurately. So by virtue of being a minority or a woman, you have lower rates of access to your government, to healthcare, and to financial services. And in the context of a pandemic, with the in-person channels cut off, that’s not okay.
In late 2018, we’d worked with both NIST and with Veterans Affairs to launch a product for “virtual-in-person” identity proofing and it basically virtualizes an in-person interaction where if you don’t have a presence in records, you can come into a video chat, show your ID—it’s recorded—and we can get you through online without you having to travel to a physical location.
So when COVID came and we were the only company that had this capability to increase access to folks who are listed inaccurately and missing from credit records. And then we can make the identity portable after that one-time identity verification. So it’s equitable. Once you’ve been proved, it’s kind of like a visit to the DMV, it’s not the most pleasant thing in the world, but once it’s done, it’s over. And you now have this credential that can help you streamline transactions everywhere you see that credential again.
That’s our model and approach to both solving the access need that COVID suddenly brought upon these government agencies and healthcare organizations. And we not only respond to that crisis, but our goal is to solve it for the long term.
And if another crisis does happen, and it will, our goal is to have a substantial portion of the country pre-verified into secure digital identities. So if you need to access USDA and SNAP, if you need to go to Medicaid or Medicare, if you need unemployment benefits, you can do that with one login that you already have. And so the operational challenge of verifying all the folks coming in if unemployment goes from 4 percent to 16 percent in weeks is a much smaller challenge if half of them are already good to go. And you basically chopped that operational challenge in half.
And that’s really the only way to solve these access issues during a period of crisis when the system is just overwhelmed. And so we’re very passionate about that. And it’s also cool to see industry realize that what they were doing before was really inefficient, and there was a better way. So it gave us an opportunity to show what we’ve been up to with NIST and then actually pushing the envelope to innovate when given the chance.
Castro: What role do you think government data has in allowing companies like yours to offer verification services to certain communities such as first responders and veterans?
Hall: It’s enormously important. And a big part of what we do is help people take advantage of the government’s data and licensing information in particular. Every state manages professional licenses, and they’re public. Are you a teacher? Are you a nurse? Are you a licensed electrical contractor? And so government data is absolutely crucial to that.
There was a bill passed several years ago that allowed financial institutions to query the Social Security Administration’s API to validate name, date of birth, and Social Security numbers for account opening. And that’s to combat something called synthetic identity theft, where usually criminals will take a child’s Social Security number that’s not yet in credit records, and they’ll tie it to a made up name and date of birth. So therefore, synthetic, to perpetrate fraud against financial institutions.
Unfortunately, that law only allows financial institutions to query it. Even credential service providers serving government agencies are not currently allowed to query it. So we’re working with policymakers to both increase access and security even more by enabling government agencies and healthcare organizations, as well as their identity providers, to be able to access more government data.
We see a lot of opportunity there. If an individual needs access to benefits that they receive if their income is below a certain threshold, why can’t we just do a real time API call to verify that their claim of income is true? There’s so much opportunity with government data to increase access, and increase access faster, so that it’s real time and not something that takes weeks. But already what the government does in terms of open data for licensing and records and things like that is enormously important for our business.
Castro: How do you expect online services will evolve as electronic identity verification becomes more ubiquitous and seamless?
Hall: Our vision is to build the identity layer for the Internet, and a big part of what we’re doing is building the app store for the cloud Internet. If you think about Google and Apple, what makes their app stores so powerful and so useful for consumers and for developers alike is they have trusted identity, they have a trusted device, they have the ability to drive demand generation and awareness of the applications that are on their app stores, and they have payments. We also have all four of those things, except we’re not tethered to any hardware or ecosystem. So as ID.me’s login is accepted at Social Security, Veterans Affairs and 26 state workforce agencies, MGM for digital room check-in, at Fidelity Investments, and at 500 consumer brands like Apple and Samsung, the beautiful part of that is that if you’re on ID.me, and you’re logged in, you can open up the VA or Social Security like an app on your laptop—just like your laptop doesn’t challenge you to login every single time you move from Adobe to Word.
That will strip so much friction out of people’s lives. If you think about the same thing that enterprise single sign on with services like Okta did for business, we’re doing for all consumers. If we already know that you are you, or if we already have other credentials—like you’re a medical provider—here’s all the applications that accept ID.me for login. And you can just open up those applications without being challenged for your password or for identity verification because you’ve already done that. And when you do that, you can save people so much time and money.
I’ve spent an hour of my life setting up my Apple TV box to type in the dang code for Netflix and Disney and Nick Jr. and ESPN and CBS and all this stuff. In our model, once we know you are you and your address, why can’t we just do an API call to HBO and to Showtime and ESPN and Netflix and say, “this person is a subscriber”? If we can authorize this device to know that you’re a paying subscriber, you just save an hour of your life. They can shut down that forest of logins for Cox and Time Warner and Verizon when you go to authorize content. And there’s lower churn because subscribers have easier access and less friction to get access to content they’re paying for. So the same thing that Visa did for payments, we’re literally doing for every workflow that needs trust and identity. And it’s hard to imagine a world without Visa or MasterCard. And so just imagine the time and money that we can save everybody if your identity can just move with you as the consumer.
So that’s really our vision for changing the way that online services are delivered and empowering consumers.