After returning from serving overseas and adjusting to civilian life, Blake Hall and fellow veteran Matthew Thompson were struck by the realization how one piece of paper from the military made them more vulnerable to identity theft than nonveterans.
Of America’s 21.6 million veterans, only retirees or veterans who receive health care from the Veterans Affairs Department get ID cards, leaving more than half of the veteran community — nearly 12 million — to use a DD214 as a form of identification.
This 8.5 x 11″ document details veterans’ service and discharge status, and also contains Social Security numbers and blood type. Whenever veterans want to use a veteran discount or prove their veteran status, they have to present this form and thus, exposing highly sensitive information to third parties.
Enter ID.me, a secure online verification system that makes it easier for veterans to cash in on their benefits. Hall and Thompson, both decorated war veterans who met at Harvard Business School, started the company as TroopSwap, an online verification system that worked with military-friendly businesses to deliver discounts and services to veterans, active-duty service members and their spouses or dependents.
It soon became the largest military-focused solution in the country. Following the launch, several Fortune 500 companies approached Hall and Thompson, expressing an interest in being customers. ID.me was then able to extend TroopSwap to also include students and first responders.
The veterans issue, Hall says, hits close to home. A third-generation service member and former Army captain, Hall has committed himself to help make veterans’ lives easier.
“I’m invested in making sure that veterans have a way to claim benefits they’ve earned, without exposing their privacy, like Social Security numbers,” he said.
But taking a chance on entrepreneurship wasn’t easy, Hall admits.
“You have to have the confidence to make big bets on yourself,” he said. “That’s the only thing that separates entrepreneurs from other people, and gives someone the potential to change people’s lives.”
One of ID.me’s goal is to make the Internet a more trusted place, and be the “trust player” for the Web. Constantly evolving technology, Hall said, is going to keep fueling this progress.
“It’s the reason I’m so passionate about technology,” he said. “Tech is the only field that can drive change at the speed at which it needs to occur to give veterans the benefits they’ve earned.”
For Hall and Thompson, this company has become their mission and their life. Hall recalls his wedding night, which coincidentally took place right before a grant proposal was due. At the end of the night, Thompson told Hall he was going home to work more on the grant.
That type of attitude helped Hall and Thompson receive a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute for Standards and Technology last week. The grant will go toward developing and piloting an enhanced security system that would grant Level of Assurance 3 certification from the General Services Administration’s Trust Framework Providers program so Troop ID credential holders can use their solution also when interacting with federal agencies through the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange.
ID.me was one of five organizations to receive funding from NIST as it works to support the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, a governmentwide effort to ensure agencies are working with the private sector and advocacy groups.
Hall said ID.me chose to take the private sector road first so instead of government defining what the company should build, it would build it, use feedback from the market and then cater it to government.
“We took an innovative approach,” Hall said. “We knew we had the core of the idea right, but that it wasn’t the real problem — digital identity at large is the real problem. There was no way we would have known that if we hadn’t gotten that feedback from the marketplace.”
Hall defines his role at ID.me as the problem solver, and credits the work the company has been doing to the team he has, in particular Thompson, who he describes as “the absolute best.”
Throughout this experience, Hall has developed a new appreciation of entrepreneurship, describing it as part art, part science.