Computer Weekly Editor's Blog

Mar 2 2012   11:59AM GMT

Loving it when an identity plan comes together

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

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To quote a phrase that was mightily popular in the 1980s: I love it when a plan comes together.

In this case, it’s not even my plan, but it’s one I’ve found myself writing about often over the past few years. Here’s just a couple of recent examples:

Government identity banks start to take shape

Goodbye ID cards – is it time to say hello to identity banks?

I’m referring to the start of the roll out of what has now come to be called Identity Assurance (IDA), the government’s programme for securely verifying that we are who we say we are when accessing online public services.

The Department for Work and Pensions has issued a tender to purchase an IDA system that will support the introduction of the government’s flagship welfare reform, universal credit, to allow 21 million benefit claimants to use the new “digital by default” services they will be offered. IDA will authenticate who they are, and allow them access to online public services.

The DWP tender will establish a framework for use by every other public sector organisation, which promises to revolutionise the digital delivery of government services – potentially achieving a vision of what we all used to call e-government, first laid out by Tony Blair as long ago as the late 1990s.

Commercial organisations are already gearing up to offer IDA services – the Post Office recently tendered for an IT partner to help establish its network as an identity assurance provider. Banks, credit agencies, perhaps even supermarkets and social media firms will no doubt be looking at the opportunities that IDA presents.

The concept has been around for ages and it’s been a rocky road to get this far.

Blair’s government started an IDA-like programme in 2000, using digital certificates, with backing from Royal Mail, Barclays and NatWest. Despite some small-scale trials, the plan foundered over the lack of a commercial model and the fact that so few potential customers were using the internet as actively as they do today.

Sadly Blair and Gordon Brown then stormed down the ill-advised and poorly thought-through idea of identity cards as the so-called “gold standard” for e-identity. We all know what a costly failure that proved to be.

The idea for commercially-operated “identity banks” was briefly resurrected in 2008, when former HBOS CEO Sir James Crosby wrote a report, commissioned by Brown as chancellor of the exchequer, that recommended banks and trusted institutions act as authenticators of our digital identity. Crosby even introduced the phrase “identity assurance”.

The idea, at its most simple, was not dissimilar to the way debit cards work: A bank verifies your identity and establishes a trusted relationship with you. When you need to prove your identity for some form of electronic transaction elsewhere – such as a benefits claim – the bank is able to digitally confirm you are who you say you are, much as they would confirm you have the funds to make a debit card purchase.

In all his wisdom, and blinkered by an apparent obsession with ID cards, Brown ignored the report he had commissioned when he became prime minister.

IDA attempts to resurrect that principle in a move that could revolutionise how we trade online.

If IDA establishes a proven and secure mechanism to confirm to government that we are who we say we are online, then surely every commercial organisation would want to take advantage of that same authorisation service.

Before long, if successful, IDA could become an established and world-leading mechanism for tackling identity theft and online fraud across the entire UK economy.

IDA avoids the “Big Brother” elements that identity cards implied with its central identity register. Indeed, government would not even own the mechanism for authentication – it would just be a customer for it. Each of us would have the right to choose the organisation through which we verified our electronic identity, and just like a bank account if you found someone else offering a better service you could switch. IDA aims to establish a whole new marketplace for such services.

For me, the concept is a no-brainer.

Clearly it’s not without its challenges, not the least of which is simply that it hasn’t been done before. But to meet an obvious need – proving our online identity – which is so essential to the future of a digital economy in the internet age, IDA is a plan for its time and one that could prove to be hugely significant.

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