David Harney – President and CEO Europe, Great West Lifeco. Oups he did it again!

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David Harney is a lifer at Irish Life, literally. He joined the company at 17 and has stayed ever since. I joke he joined the mail room but in fact he joined via the actuary apprentice scheme. His rise has been of the meteorite-quality and in 2007 he was made Head of Corporate only to face into devastating loses the following year in the global financial crash.  Despite or perhaps because of that, he was promoted to CEO of Irish Life Group in 2016, following its bailout by the Irish government and subsequent sale to Canadian Insurance giant, Great West Lifeco. Then just three weeks ago, he was promoted to President and CEO Europe of Great West Lifeco.  I ask if he has done it again as he now faces into the Corona Virus crash. He reckons he might be unlucky but quickly counters that despite the crash in 2008 the following decade turned out okay.  “Hopefully we’ll see the same again.”

The reason for our chat is the talk David gave last month to the Blockchain Ireland association headed up by the Dr Nicola Stokes from the IDA.  The event was held in the brand spanking new IDA offices on Hatch Street Upper and the topic was sovereign identity. What was unusual was the talk was given by a captain of financial industry in Ireland and not a fintech startup.  Moreover, the loose coalition working alongside Irish Life are household names such as Vodafone, ESB, An Post, A&L Goodbody, Deloitte and FEXCO – again unlikely names to be mixed up in blockchain affairs.

Notwithstanding his promotion since the presentation, David assures me he is staying on as champion of the Identity project – codenamed Emerald. “The project is a national one, hence the other companies involved, and the government is interested in it too.  Once we figure it out, we would like to share our solution internationally,” he says.

First of all, Emerald needs to sort out definitions of identity – and credentials. 

“Identity is who you are.  You are born and you exist as a unique human being.  Then credentials are the things that you present to prove that you who you say you are. Your first credential is your name given by your parents. Next up is your birthday certificate. As you grow you may acquire educational credentials, a driver’s license, passport.  These credentials prove who you are.  You own them and hold them and you present them as required. We call this self-sovereign identity.

“The Emerald project is to create a digital credential or set of credentials that you own and carry with you in an electronic wallet which you can share as you need.”

Currently, the situation of proving who you are online is messy with duplicate requests from company to company and even from different government departments.  The holy grail is to evolve a solution that allows the individual to digitally share their data and to have it trusted.

“It’s mad because when the internet was invented no one thought about digital identity. It’s a problem that is only being addressed now by coalitions such as Emerald.”

It’s certainly true that the internet did not address these issues, in fact anonymity was a benefit where no one could tell who you were – you could even be a dog online as the New Yorker cartoon from Peter Steiner famously showed.

For David and Emerald, the focus is on the principles behind their Identity Solution. Ideas such as social good, trusted brands, an open ecosystem and not for profit predominate.  The issues of identity are problematic for individuals with multiple passwords needed. On the flip side it costs corporations billions to manage their customer data and that was before GDPR came in.

“I believe that self-sovereign identity will be the next level up on GDPR. We won’t have to store our data online we can store it in our own wallets, but we can store the proof that we have the credential online via the blockchain,” he says.

So why is a company like Irish Life leading the charge?

“Like other financial companies we have to validate people before we onboard them as clients.  This is a very costly business. But there is no point to us building a single solution. In fact, there is no use in groups of financial companies developing a product for their sector. It needs to be across society and with government involvement.  Self-sovereign identity implies you own your data and it is private.  We see our role as building the infrastructure – like a motorway or a pipe for electricity.  Sure, there will be commercial applications of the infrastructure, but the actual development is open source or not for profit.

“We are using blockchain as the technology that ensures the credentials can be verified – which particular brand of blockchain I am not interested in. We are blockchain agnostic. And we are using smartphones as the ubiquitous device available to everyone.”

In terms of the roadmap, David is still very much onboard, despite his new role and is confident the group will have a pilot up and running by the end of the year.

“Maybe a mock up of the current government ID system, trial it with our customers and see how it works.”

As he said at the beginning, identity management is costing corporations billion around the globe. With this solution, the future may very well be emerald.