Yoti aims to provide everyone with a biometric digital identity that works via a smartphone app

YOTI or Your Own Trusted Identity verifies who you are using biometrics on a free smartphone app. If it's widely adopted, it could be used for authentication purposes by clubs, supermarkets, websites, governments and other organisations, though it can also work on a peer-to-peer basis

Yoti, a British start-up, is trying to establish a global identity system that protects users from both identity theft and having their data collected and exploited. All personal data remains within the Yoti ecosystem, where different elements - name, gender, date of birth etc - are encrypted and stored separately. Only the individual user can tie it all together.

Yoti - derived from Your Own Trusted Identity - requires a smartphone, and there are apps for both Apple iOS and Android. The potential audience is in the billions.

Yoti requires each user to create a digital identity. This involves providing biometric identifiers such as video and speech, plus an image of a government-backed identification document, such as a passport or a driving licence. Yoti discards these after the ID has been created. Yoti's co-founder and CEO Robin Tombs says passport images are deleted after seven days.

Users who have Android phones with NFC can read the chip in their digital passport. Tombs says Apple doesn't allow this at the moment.

If a company wants to verify a user, it presents them with a QR code that they can read with the Yoti app. They can verify their Yoti ID by entering a 5-digit pin or their biometrics: that is, by videoing themselves and by speaking random words displayed on the smartphone screen. If you're holding your smartphone in the usual way, the video is easily captured: the app just turns on the front-facing camera.

Tombs says the system isn't completely foolproof because some people may have fake passports or fake driving licences. However, it's more secure than alternatives such as database lookups based on names and addresses, electoral rolls, birthdays, mothers' maiden names and similar pieces of information.

One advantage for users is that they can verify their identities without divulging extra information. For example, if you proffer a driving licence or passport to prove that you are over 18, you're revealing a lot of personal information, not just your date of birth.

Another advantage is that people can use a single Yoti ID for multiple purposes, such local clubs, supermarkets, banks or whatever. It even works as a peer-to-peer system that you could use when meeting people you don't know.

Also, of course, Yoti works online, globally. It can be used as a website log-on, and includes a password manager.

Yoti doesn't need to collect or sell personal information or advertising space because it makes money by charging companies for its ID service.

"We have a mature business model," says Tombs. "Most businesses already pay to do background checks where they might only get 80 percent matches. That's not as good as being able to offer a 100 percent match... and we're cheaper than a database match."

Obviously, there's a chicken-and-egg problem with getting a service like Yoti off the ground. Most users won't make the effort to set up a digital identity on Yoti if they don't need one, and most companies won't ask for "a Yoti" if none of their users have them.

That problem would be solved almost instantly if, say, Facebook or a large government department mandated Yoti. Being adopted by a bank or a national supermarket chain - which is possible, if NCR backs the system - would be a major breakthrough. Even Twitter would be great step forward, and Twitter desperately needs a system like Yoti. (As it is, verified users may be asked for passport or driving licence images to prove their IDs,)

At the moment, Yoti is working with a couple of dozen early adopters. These include the NSPCC, the UK's national children's charity, NCR, Reed, a large recruitment agency, and Deltic, the UK's largest nightclub chain.

People who use the Free-ads website to buy and sell things can also use Yoti to confirm their IDs and get a Trusted Member badge. That approach would work on eBay, Gumtree or Craigslist, and also on online dating sites.

Whether Yoti will take off is anyone's guess, but the increase in identity theft suggests there's a market need.

Yoti says it has had 140,000 downloads so far, with about 95,000 of those being UK users.

The company was founded in 2014 and now has about 180 staff, mostly in London. Yoti aims to have more than a million users "by summer 2018, expanding into India, the US and Europe". The service can already accept passports from 140 countries.

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