Digital identity innovation transpires in mysterious ways – and none seem as interesting as the recent conclusion of the 90-day experiment that the National Basketball Association ran to complete its season, popularly termed the “bubble”.
For some individuals (namely, fans of a historic franchise‚ it marked the joyous celebration of its first championship in ten years; for others, it was a somber day (i.e. game 5 Jimmy Butler hopefuls). For this OWI writer, it was mainly an opportunity to reflect upon the unique way in which the NBA chose to leverage digital identity — in particular, physical identity and access management (PIAM) — as well as the broad impact that the bubble will have on the sports industry and digital identity practices.
A host of technologies, designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spreading amongst the 814 or so NBA players, staffers, and coaches holed up in Orlando, were crucial to the bubble’s success. While among these, the most eye-catching tech may have been Oura, a $300 smart ring, (with a purported 25% of players, coaches, and staff wearing it), the wearable only acted as a small, optional asset to the larger system of physical identity and access management the NBA had set up in conjunction with Disney. In fact, I’d argue that the more important (and overlooked) technology, with broad ramifications for digital identity in everyday life, were the Disney MagicBand systems. Not only was it mandatory for every individual in the bubble to possess one, the bands were synchronized against an individual’s health readiness (i.e. forgetting to fill out symptom self-assessment denies entry) to allow entry to different access points. In essence, the NBA bubble created a stunningly successful PIAM system that managed and protected sensitive information and physical resources with appropriately tiered access.
There and Back Again: Mapping OWI Predictions to the Present Moment
Some of our predictions in 2018 about the PIAM market — including that border protection and terrorism/physical security would be tantamount as drivers for the market — may persist in being important for the general market. However, one might fairly conclude that during a pandemic seemingly without end in sight, PIAM’s future more closely resembles the NBA bubble: with digital credentials and wearables increasingly being leveraged against physical characteristics to broker access. Part of this shift has already happened with the introduction of old technologies in familiar places, such as temperature checks for restaurants. Other parts of this shift have instead synthesized familiar products with newer contexts, including the use of facial recognition alongside temperature checks to monitor mask usage and to trace the disease across people to a limited capacity.
However, such a conclusion willfully ignores what is arguably the largest factor in determining PIAM’s growth – privacy. This concern is especially evident when observing the two technologies that have emerged as predominant modalities for access management: facial recognition and location/contact tracing. Facial recognition has long been somewhat of a hot-button topic for PIAM, and will likely be a bellwether for lasting change to PIAM adoption and public sensitivity. When, for example, Ticketmaster announced in 2018 that it had invested in startup Blink Identity — which claims to be able to identify people walking by in “half a second” — musicians and fans alike were outraged. Numerous of the former called for a ban on the technology at live events. Taylor Swift made headlines that same year for leveraging facial recognition of concert attendees against a database of her known stalkers to administer stadium access. In the present moment, for school systems such as New York, facial recognition technology was placed under a moratorium to preserve privacy where possible. Similarly, contact tracing – spearheaded by nearly four dozen countries and large tech corporations to mitigate COVID-19 spread — has received significant backlash in the United States for what some perceive to be privacy concerns around the government tracking their location or improper use of collected data.
The OWI Take
We’ve noted in our previous analysis that privacy will likely be an enduring issue for both vendors and regulators alike, and we anticipate this to persist even in light of COVID-19. The pandemic shift towards remote onboarding and digitized access has not offset any consumer sensitivity around data misuse or location tracking that have persisted with traditional PIAM products. With the bubble, residents were locked into participating for a few months and were more willing to shed concerns around potential privacy loss. PIAM enhancements were more easily accepted because residents bought into the integrity of the system and into the belief that the system was necessary as the best way to mitigate risk. And for those 90 days, the experiment worked to a tee. For many consumers in their day to day lives, however, the benefits aren’t as clear; some may even feel that because of their perceived ability to choose to engage with high risk environments (e.g. the grocery store), they don’t need enhanced PIAM as the best way to mitigate risk. As a result, consumers will likely continue to be guarded when it comes to their privacy, and the risk-benefit tradeoff for physical access — even during the pandemic — will not shift significantly.
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