ApplyProof: Understanding Digital Identity

This is the second blog in our series on digital identity and international education. To read the first article in the series, please click here.

As members of the Digital Identity and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC), ApplyProof participates in discussions with counterparts from government, industry, banking, technology, education institutions, and other organizations. We want to ensure that all stakeholders in the digital identity ecosystem understand the significance and benefits of international education.

“ApplyProof is a valued member of the Digital Identity and Authentication Council of Canada (DIACC). As an actively participating member, they play a leading role in shaping the future of Canada’s digital economy. The DIACC is committed to unlocking economic opportunities for Canadian people and businesses by providing frameworks to develop a robust, secure, scalable and privacy-enhancing digital identification and authentication ecosystem.”

– Joni Brennan, President, DIACC

To help with this effort, in this blog series we’re addressing aspects of digital identity and document verification from an international educator’s perspective. In my last post in this series, I provided an introduction to digital identity and how it intersects with international education. In today’s article, I’ll be detailing critical digital identity terms, how to understand digital identity, and the tensions between privacy and trust.

Some Key Terms

Before we dive into the importance of digital identity for international students, it’s beneficial to outline some key parameters of digital identity discussions. Specifically, the terms “Identity”, “Identification”, and “Authentication” are fundamental for framing conversations on digital identity According to DIACC:

  • Identity is defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO) as a “set of attributes related to an entity”. When information used by computer systems can be used to represent a person or organisation, that is a digital identity.
  • Identification is the process of connecting identity attributes to a human being or an organization. Producing a password and login ID to access a website is an example of identification.
  • Authentication means the process or action of proving or demonstrating something to be true, genuine, or valid. Providing answers to security questions when you forget your password on a particular website is an instance of authenticating your identity.

While international students may not be familiar with these terms, they are probably a part of a student’s experience.

International Students and Digital Identity

An international student accrues a digital identity when their data is collected, interconnected, and connected to them personally. For example, when a variety of documents related to a student are collected for admission, these documents may be digitally collated under a single student ID or name and this may become an aspect of that student’s digital identity. Identification would be ensuring those documents rightfully belong to that specific student. Authenticating might include demonstrating the validity of particular documents.

Connecting those component pieces to each other, and making the leap between those digital or material documents and an individual person, is one of the challenges of digital identity. At what point do we actually match the documents to a person? Most International Offices do not have biometrics scanners or comparison tools. Instead, we may rely on our innate (and fallible) senses to match a passport photo to the face of the student. That very human process is at the heart of building a relationship between students and school staff, but it can also be another weak link in the chain of identity and identification.

To address these concerns, many educational institutions rely on sophisticated digital ID solutions. For example, we might use campus ID cards to grant access to particular buildings, as a payment card for campus or even off-campus transactions. But these systems may not account for fundamental issues of digital identity. Are we confident that the campus ID was issued upon a solid identity foundation?

How Do We Identify Students?

At the end of the day, it’s worth asking how many international students are faced with multiple micro-aggressions because their identity is suspect due to the lack of a familiar identification? While many institutions are sensitive to this concern and have implemented work-arounds to deal with cultural challenges to identity (such as uniquely identifying multiple students in the same cohort having identical names), too many times, “foreign” students may be relegated to a suspect class. Lack of trust in digital documentation may even heighten that suspicion.

Though we may take our identity systems for granted, it’s important that we look into why and how they function, and how they impact the student experience. Did the identity foundation account for the international student’s biometrics, passport, or other digital or paper documents that would provide a unique, meaningful identity outside the campus context? Do the identity verification processes that schools rely on assume cultural uniformity, and do they take into account the bureaucratic and systemic borders that international students cross? Domestic students may rely on their government issued Education Number (OEN in Ontario) and perhaps their provincially-issued driver’s license to establish identity, but what assumptions are made about the documents an international student is able to present?

ApplyProof shield illustration

Identification and Privacy

For an international student, the challenges of crossing international and cultural boundaries can result in frequent challenges to their identity, identification, and authentication. This means that international students, perhaps more than many others, would benefit from a robust digital ecosystem that could accept and verify their identity, whether in-person or virtually.

But the flip-side of the identity coin is, of course, privacy. International students need greater digital efficiency for verifying identity documents, and making those connections simple and straightforward is the priority. On the other hand, for those who enjoy the privilege of assuming confidence in their identity, privacy concerns may be perceived as the greater challenge and priority. Likewise, the international student’s priority on efficiency may make them more vulnerable.

Privacy Laws

As my previous blog post discussed, to an international student, answering “no ” when an authority figure requests proof of identity may not be a reality they even consider. Remaining anonymous may not be a viable option. Issues of privacy may be paramount to discussions of digital identity. But reckoning privacy with identity, identification, and authentication is inherent to the digital ecosystem.

Canada’s laws and policies regarding privacy, data, and the digital economy are evolving. The implementation of GDPR, and its reach beyond the borders of Europe, is a motivating factor. But so too are the challenges that international students, refugees, permanent residents, and immigrants face when they look to learn or work in Canada.

ApplyProof, Digital Identity, and Privacy

ApplyProof is laser-focused on making student documents and information required for Canadian study permit applications efficiently verifiable. We believe that increasing trust in student documents and increasing authentication efficiency will help lower barriers for students on their path to study in Canada.

By participating in DIACC, and by looking at all aspects of digital identity that impact Canadian institutions, we are enabling students to pursue their study abroad dreams. We’re mindful of the material circumstances of the real people, including international students, whose identities make the actual and cultural leap across international borders, even as we analyse and implement new privacy and identity boundaries and parameters.

Canada’s Digital Charter

I hope that this introduction to digital identity has given you the confidence to investigate further and to engage in discussions with your colleagues about how we can all support international students in the digital economy. Next month, the Head of ApplyProof, Iman Hassani, will be taking a closer look at Canada’s Digital Charter and outlining the importance of interoperability for digital identity solutions in the education sector. Stay tuned!


A. Michael Allcott, PhD – Director of Partnerships

With over three decades of leadership roles in international education at US and Canadian colleges and universities, Dr. Mike Allcott is known for innovative enrollment management strategies. Throughout his career, he has been known for creative and effective responses to the rapidly changing ecosystem of internationalization. As the Director of Partnerships for ApplyProof, Dr. Mike develops partnerships enabling technological solutions for students, institutions, and education stakeholders all across Canada.