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EU digital identity wallet is not an “electronic leash to control citizens.”

Conspiracy theories about so-called “digital enslavement” were actively used to spread disinformation against the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. Today they’re appearing again, this time triggered by an agreement on the European digital identity wallet — an application meant to allow users’ personal data to be shared throughout the EU while they retain complete control over who has access and how they can use this data.

The aim of this regulation is to harmonize different digital identification practices and the various stages of their implementation across individual member states. So how could this be interpreted as an attempt by “Brussels to deprive people of their rights and control them”? It’s a well-known recipe: mix in the familiar conspiracy theory of “digital enslavement” with a dash of “scholars and experts”, sprinkle some “digital euro” for added spice, and generously drizzle with buzzwords like “electronic leash”.

This phrase was scattered across many Bulgarian news sites and social networks in mid-November.

In fact, it was just one article making the rounds online. It first appeared on the website Kritichno and was later republished on Glasove, Lentata, Budna Era, Informiran, the Facebook groups Zaedno mozhem poveche 100%, Vazrazhdane Sofia, Istinata za Stara Zagora and other places. This inaccurate and highly manipulative piece of news thereby reached over 100,000 people.

Where it began

The one-sided piece was initially published on the Polish website wpolityce.pl one week after the adoption of an agreement between the European Parliament and the Council of the EU on the Regulation for the introduction of European digital identity wallets. Subsequently, it was reprinted on the English-language Hungarian website Remix and then translated and published in Bulgarian.

Articles from Remix are regularly republished by Bulgarian web outlets such as Kritichno, Obektivno, and Glasove. The site openly propagates anti-European ideas and parrots the political outlook of Hungary’s ruling majority. The conservative outlet Remix News is thought to be affiliated with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; its unofficial sponsor behind the curtain is a foundation linked to his government. The publication’s managing editor, Patrick Egan, has been a consultant for Orban’s party Fidesz for years. One of the ongoing disinformation campaigns fueled by the pro-government news site targets Hungarian-born American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros and his family.

What is the European Digital Identity Wallet?

Many citizens already use e-wallets on their mobile phones to store boarding passes and tickets when traveling or virtual bank cards and loyalty cards when shopping. These wallets offered by online platforms often give users access to various e-services through their profiles — from making purchases to reading the news — but do not necessarily offer full control over the data they share when using such services.

The name “wallet” has not haphazardly been applied to the EC proposal for digital identification. It will contain all the documents that we usually carry in our physical wallets — ID card, driver’s license, bank and membership cards, prescriptions for medication — only now in an entirely electronic format. In our digital wallet, we will be able to carry our diplomas, electronically sign documents, access our bank accounts, make payments, apply for loans, file tax returns, enroll in university, and more.

At any given moment, the wallet’s owner will have full control over the data they share, as well as transparency about who they are sharing it with. Many different applications are used today for services where users are not always aware of what happens to the personal data they share.

The European digital wallet offers a single mobile application through which citizens will be able to prove their identity anywhere in the EU. Not only that, but they can also choose how much information to share, depending on the situation, without disclosing their full identity or other personal details.

The application will be free to download, but its use will not be mandatory for citizens.

The European Commission explains that digital identity wallets should complement existing national systems. Not everyone living in the EU today has access to digital means of identification. European digital wallets will not replace but rather will complement current national solutions for online identification. These solutions allow for seamless identification and verification in both the public and private sectors throughout the EU, including the sharing of personal and identifying information.

No ”leash”, nor “digital euro”

Despite the Bulgarian translation’s title referring to “scholars and experts”, their names, not to mention their specific concerns regarding the future regulation, remain murky. It is only mentioned that 504 people have signed an open letter. The original Polish article links to the mentioned letter. In it, 551 experts and university professors from 42 countries (as of November 26, 2023) provide commentary on a draft of the regulation and suggest changes. The letter indicates that their concerns are primarily related to the potential for member state governments to obtain a means for surveillance and control, not “Brussels”.

The phrase “electronic leash”  appears nowhere in the letter, as suggested by the Bulgarian title, which implies that it is a quote.

Additionally, it is not clear which claims in the article are based on the letter from the scholars, or whether any such claims exist at all. Upon verification, it appears that the arguments presented do not correspond to the contents of the open letter. According to the text, “having all your documents in one place means they can be confiscated with a single click”. Nowhere in the letter is such a claim made. Neither is there any mention of document “invalidation”, not by member states nor by “Brussels”. Furthermore, the letter makes no reference to the digital euro at all.

Factcheck.bg has already explained in detail why the digital euro would not replace physical cash or national currencies.

Отнемат ли цифровите валути парите и свободата ни

Will digital currencies revoke our money and freedom? Read more

Nevertheless, the digital euro is an item of specific focus in the article. It does not simply claim, entirely falsely, that the wallet would amount to imposing the “digital euro”, but it insists on the “gradual elimination of all national currencies in favor of the euro” as an end result. Neither the regulation in question nor any EU document envisions such a scenario.

A conveniently omitted fact is that the document has yet to be finalized. On November 8, 2023, a preliminary agreement was reached between the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, but work on the text has not stopped. When it does, the regulation will be submitted for approval by member state representatives in Brussels, and then it can finally be officially adopted by the Parliament and the Council.

In the meantime, the Commission has developed a prototype for the wallet and is funding four trans-European pilot projects to test the wallet’s everyday use by individuals and legal entities — for public and private services via smartphones or, at the national level, for cross-border interactions. The digital identity wallet itself will have an open-source license. This means that anyone can examine the proposed technological structure, test for errors, or identify security vulnerabilities. However, in the interest of public safety, member states have the right to decide which parts of the source code to disclose.

The Conspiracy Theory of Digital Enslavement

Concerns that governments are continuously developing tools to monitor and control their citizens have given rise to dozens of conspiracy theories. They all share a common pattern — a group of wealthy and influential people (global elites, Jews, the Illuminati, etc.) thinking up and attempting to carry out a sinister plan to benefit themselves at the expense of ordinary people (the nation). Versions of this featuring a plot wherein the global elite intends to enslave free people through digital means with the help of new technologies are in the zeitgeist too.

Such claims gained particular momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic with the introduction of digital certificates proving one’s vaccination or recovery status. In EU member states, the pandemic was actively exploited through disinformation campaigns against European institutions. This conspiracy linked COVID certificates with digital identity and digital currencies, leading to the conclusion that everything was heading towards the EU taking away citizens’ money, rights, and freedom.

Не, чиповете в новите лични карти не означават „дигитално робство“ и „тотално следене“

In Bulgaria, similar false claims and threats of “digital slavery” have been spreading alongside the introduction of new identity cards with biometric data.

On a global scale, one of the most popular conspiracy theories during the pandemic was about “microchipping” through vaccines, a tact aiming to surveil, control, sterilize, or even outright decimate the world population, depending on the narrative. Conspiracy theories rely upon fear and ignorance. It is completely normal to feel anxiety about innovations beyond our understanding and the consequences of which we cannot control. Citizens being critical of institutions is an essential condition for public oversight of their actions. However, the incessant blame for every fear and grievance being placed on some global conspiracy is not a demonstration of critical thinking or free expression of thought. It is a convenient business model serving the profits of political and media speculators alike.

 

Ralitsa Kovacheva also contributed to this article.

 

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The responsibility for the content lies entirely with Factcheck.bg.

Публикацията е създадена с подкрепата на Европейския съюз. Отговорността за съдържанието е изцяло на Factcheck.bg.

Elena Furnadzhieva
Elena Furnadzhieva
Elena Furnadzhieva is a journalist with over 25 years of professional experience. She graduated in Slavic Philology, majoring in Czech Philology at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski ”. Her professional career began at Darik Radio when the radio was found. She was working as a judicial and political reporter and was among the journalists covering the protests against Videnov's cabinet in the winter of 1996-1997. In 2001 she joined the BTV team as a producer, and was the Editor-in-Chief of the News and Current Affairs Department. Elena became one of the founders of BiT's Bulgarian office in 2015, where she worked as Chief Executive Producer. She currently lives with her family in Florence, Italy. She speaks English, Italian, Czech, Slovak and Russian.

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