Bhutan’s National Digital Identity struggles with judicial acceptance of digital documents

In a bid to revolutionize Bhutan’s digital landscape, the National Digital Identity (NDI) system was launched on October 2023, promising to empower citizens with control over their personal data and streamline bureaucratic processes. However, recent challenges have emerged, particularly concerning the Judiciary’s reluctance to accept digital documents in legal proceedings.

According to sources closely associated with the implementation of NDI, there appears to be disconnect between the aspirations of the GovTech and the Judiciary’s acceptance of digital evidence.

Despite their interest to go paperless and to digitalise everything, the Judiciary’s hesitance poses a significant obstacle to its widespread adoption leading them to provide only pre-paid services.

To which an official from GovTech said, “Both the ICTM Act 2018 and the National Digital Identity Act 2023 acknowledge electronic signatures as equivalent to written signatures. However, the challenge lies in ensuring the authenticity of the evidence rather than rejecting it outright.”

“It’s crucial to establish the authenticity of digital evidence and confirm its ownership. By utilising the Bhutan NDI Wallet for signing digital documents, coupled with the backend services of Bhutan NDI providing necessary logs and data points, we aim to demonstrate authenticity and rightful ownership. Through this approach, we anticipate that all relevant authorities will recognize electronic signatures,” he added.

The Official from GovTech also clarified the functionality and features of the NDI system. The NDI ecosystem comprises backend services ensuring security and reliability, alongside the NDI Wallet, a digital repository for personal credentials.

Likewise, the official said, “Organizations leveraging the NDI platform have praised its ability to streamline business processes and enhance digital trust. Agencies leveraging the NDI, have the option to seamlessly integrate their systems with the Bhutan NDI platform, allowing them to receive verified data during user registration electronic Know Your Customers (eKYC).”

Upon successful eKYC verification, these organisations can issue credentials back to users, which are then used exclusively to access services, systems, and portals online. This process guarantees that users are fully verified customers of the organisation, enhancing security and trust.

However, challenges persist, particularly in user onboarding and functionality limitations on certain mobile devices. Despite these hurdles, over 53,000 users have successfully adopted the NDI Wallet platform.

The official said, “One major misconception revolves around the functionality of the Bhutan NDI Wallet. Contrary to some users beliefs, it is not a centralized portal providing access to all online services. Instead, online services remain hosted on respective service providers’ portals or Government-to-Citizen (G2C) platforms.”

“The NDI Wallet acts as a facilitator, allowing users to securely share credentials for accessing these services when required,” he added.

Another challenge lies in the onboarding process for new users. The utilization of facial recognition and liveness tests has posed difficulties for some individuals.

“However, these steps are crucial for establishing a robust digital identity and preventing identity theft. Despite initial challenges, efforts are underway to streamline the onboarding process and enhance user experience,” he said.

Furthermore, some users have reported limitations in the functionality of the NDI Wallet app on certain mobile devices. To address this issue, a dedicated call center has been established to provide assistance and resolve technical issues promptly.

Despite these challenges, GovTech remains committed to overcoming obstacles and ensuring the successful implementation of the NDI system.

Meanwhile, GovTech is committed to making the NDI system inclusive, ensuring access for all citizens. Efforts include awareness campaigns, introducing cloud wallets for families without smart devices, and developing a web version of the wallet for feature phones. These initiatives aim to bridge the digital divide and ensure that all citizens can benefit from Bhutan’s digital transformation.

“In the future, the Bhutan NDI Wallet will also have the capability to digitally sign documents using relevant credentials stored within it,” said the official.

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