The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Robin Tombs, chief executive officer and co-founder of Yoti, a free identity app which allows people to prove who they are without physical documentation. Tombs discussed how Yoti’s solutions for identity and age verification, e-signing, and secure building access can speed up and secure verification processes, and prevent the risk of identity fraud.
Eline Chivot: What inspired you to create Yoti, and what is the company trying to achieve?
Robin Tombs: In 2014, I was at a Spartan Race (an obstacle course), where 10,000 people were queuing to register with passports and driving licences, before putting their bags down unsecured in a tent and completing the course. The process was long, outdated, and far from safe.
I’d also witnessed the impact of identity fraud and the tricks fraudsters were getting away with too easily, thanks to rapid advances in technology and the struggles of lawmakers trying to keep pace with the change.
In our modern, digital world, it doesn’t make sense that we still have to show physical ID documents simply to prove who we are. But every time we do, we are sharing excessive amounts of personal information, putting us at risk of identity fraud and theft. Millions of ID documents are also lost and stolen every year—1.4 million in the UK alone.
Building on my learnings in business and life, I wanted to create an innovation-led business that made a positive impact on society, driven by a team with a purpose—one that empowered people and businesses and set a benchmark for responsible data management. It needed to be easily accessible, scalable, simple, and inexpensive for organizations to join—and built with a user-first mindset.
Yoti is a secure digital identity platform that makes it safer and more convenient for people to prove who they are in today’s digital world, in a way that protects their privacy and promotes data minimization. Yoti is a platform for everyone.
Chivot: What are some of the notable companies and stores which accept Yoti as a form of identification?
Tombs: Our digital ID app has over six million downloads worldwide, with 70,000 downloads in the UK every month. A wide range of organizations across governments, retail, and financial services use our verification technology within their apps and websites.
Yoti is accepted for the sale of age-restricted items (excluding alcohol) in over 12,000 UK convenience stores. Yoti is also the official identity provider for the States of Jersey, giving Jersey citizens a modern way to prove their identity and connect with the government and businesses. We’re working with the global checkout leader, NCR, to improve age verification in supermarkets and speed up the self-checkout process. Our work with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) lets individuals under the age of 18 privately report and remove their nude images from the Internet, and we’re working with social networking platform Yubo to help make the Internet a safer space for young people.
Although we’re based in London, Yoti is growing in India and the United States, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. We continue to speak to organizations worldwide to expand Yoti’s use across the globe.
Chivot: How exactly are you able to verify the authenticity of both the people registering to use Yoti as well as the documents they provide? What happens if someone tries to register with a forged document?
Tombs: Every Yoti is created using an individual’s biometrics captured in a liveness test and a government-approved ID document. We use a combination of world-leading technology and expert human recognizers to verify that an individual’s ID document is real, valid, and belongs to them by matching their biometrics to their ID document photo.
Working with leading fraud experts, our security team makes sure that all security features are present on the ID document, and checks for signs of forgery or tampering. If they detect a fraudulent document, it will be blocked and unable to use.
Chivot: Yoti Keys was introduced in late 2019 to help people prove their identity without having to be connected to the Internet. How successful has Yoti Keys been, and are you planning other major grassroots initiatives?
Tombs: Yoti Keys is our offline ID solution designed to support local, grassroots organizations—such as hospitals or microfinance institutions in the Global South—by helping them identify patients or customers who may have no other way of proving who they are. There are 1.1 billion people around the world in need of health, education, or other social services who are unable to prove their identity, severely restricting access. Yoti Keys is our solution to help alleviate these issues. And we are open sourcing the Yoti Keys app to enable organizations and research programs to adapt it.
Yoti Keys is currently being evaluated by a number of international humanitarian organizations. At the end of the evaluation period, we intend to open the solution up to a wider range of nonprofits, and to revise and update the app based on the feedback we receive.
As for other grassroots initiatives, in 2019 we launched our Yoti Digital Identity Fellowship Program to offer a year-long, fully-funded scholarship to local people passionate about carrying out grassroots research to unlock the potential of digital identities. Our Digital Identity Fellows are doing a great job exploring social exclusion and human rights in Argentina, South Africa, and India. Our Social Purpose work is led by a true innovator and leader in the field, Ken Banks. You can read more on this on our website, and find out about the digital identity toolkit we’re developing, along with details of our new Humanitarian Tech Support Program.
Chivot: What is the future for mobile-based identification? What are your future goals for Yoti?
Tombs: From kids to adults, businesses to governments, even our pets, everyone is spending more time with digital products, services, and devices. They help us connect, shop, pay, discover, locate, organize, share, and much more. While speed and ease will always be key to successful digital products, people are understanding the impact of their digital lives and demanding greater privacy and security. Yoti makes life simpler and safer.
Proving our identity is one of the last landmarks for the digital revolution and Yoti is at the forefront of it. Owning a secure, verified digital ID is transforming the way people share their details and empowering them to take control of the personal data they share—online and in person.
We’re at the start of this journey, but the touchpoints where digital identities will make life a little easier and safer will continue to grow online and in person. I can’t wait to use my Yoti instead of my passport travelling through Heathrow airport and know more is being done to protect our kids online with Yoti’s identity solutions.
Our mission remains to be the world’s trusted identity platform. With our solutions spanning identity verification, age verification, authentication, e-signing, and secure building access, we will speed up and secure verification processes, and protect people from the ever-growing risk of identity fraud.
Matthew Glavish of the American University, D.C. contributed to this interview.