Will industry rescue the identity card?

IT Week recently ran a story quoting Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, that has raised an eyebrow or two in the blogosphere.

Industry may need to lead the way if the UK is ever to get a national identity card scheme that can deliver significant security and efficiency benefits.

That is the view of Simon Davies, one of the academics behind the London School of Economics’ controversial report last year on the cost and viability of the government’s ID card scheme. Davies told IT Week that now leaked emails from Whitehall officials have revealed their doubts about the viability of the scheme, the private sector may have to step in to save the project.

“I’ve believed for some months that a ‘white knight’ consortium from industry is needed,” Davies said. “Companies that can see the benefits of the ID card idea should approach the government about effectively taking over the project.”

The Home Office has long argued that the introduction of ID cards will deliver many business benefits, such as more efficient identity verification processes, less fraud, and more secure e-business transactions, and has maintained that it has been working closely with business leaders about how the technology should be used.

Speaking in her office at the newly formed Identity and Passport Service (IPS) earlier this year, Katherine Courtney, director of business development for the government’s ID card scheme, argued that while much of the coverage of ID cards has focused on the ability to tackle fraud and terrorism, it will also deliver such significant business benefits that “we will all be asking ourselves in 10 years’ time how we ever got along without them”.

Courtney added, “Because of the mobility of society and the development of the digital economy, people are leading more complicated lives and want to be able to conduct their personal administration more easily and out of office hours. These changing social trends mean that the capability to prove your identity is vital and this scheme will deliver the enabling technology [to do that].”

The Home Office is talking to public-sector bodies, such as the police and the NHS, and private firms, including banks, retailers, e-businesses and other large employers, about how they could use ID cards. The theory is that if everyone has a national identity card that can be checked against a central register containing biometric and personal details, tapping in a personal PIN code or undergoing a biometric scan will quickly replace the need to photocopy utility bills or show a passport for tasks such as enrolling for a doctor or applying for a loan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, firms have broadly welcomed plans that the Home Office estimates will save the private sector £425m a year through streamlined identity verification processes and reduced exposure to fraud. In fact, these benefits could prove so significant that organisations will offer incentives for customers to have cards, according to Ed Schaffner, director of enterprise security at IT supplier Unisys – one of the companies likely to bid for part of the Home Office contract…

“The cost of identity fraud is built into the cost of any service,” Schaffner said. “So businesses and banks can say that if you use this card to verify your ID you can have a discount.”

A spokesman for one bank also said identity cards could make it easier it to serve disenfranchised sections of society, such as migratory workers and students, who are less likely to have currently accepted forms of identity proof such as utility bills and passports.

Another way the Home Office hopes the cards will deliver significant benefits for businesses and consumers is by enhancing the security of online transactions. The Home Office argues that asking customers for an ID card number and PIN code that can verify identity against a national register would give organisations a more secure means of identifying online users.

It is a technique already used in Belgium, where 2.5 million people currently hold electronic ID cards and government agencies and banks are using information on the cards to authorise online access to their services. Chatrooms have also started to use ID card checks to ensure age limits are enforced.

In future, attaching card readers and fingerprint scanners, such as those already found on some laptops, to PCs could further strengthen security. If the technology proves as secure as the Home Office promises, retailers and banks would be able to authorise far larger online transactions than at present.

Like many observers, Jeremy Beale, head of e-business at the CBI, has concerns about the technical challenges the scheme will face, but he also argues that a working system could bring huge benefits. “ID cards are not so much a disruptive technology as a stabilising one,” he said. “Firms have been saying for years that they want a single secure standard for online identity verification, and if the government manages to deliver it there could be huge benefits for online commerce.”

But Davies added that despite these potential benefits the government has not been doing enough to form a partnership with industry and technology suppliers to develop a workable ID card system, and it is therefore time for business leaders to take a more proactive role. He argued that management of the scheme should be taken from the Home Office and handed to the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). “Industry has been left high and dry [by the government’s failure to make its plans clear], and the DTI should be able to rebuild trust with industry,” he said.

Alan Rodger of analyst firm Butler Group said there is a growing belief among some identity management experts that the government should leave the scheme to the private sector. “There is a feeling from some that we should let the market sort it out,” he said. “It would allow the problem [of securing individuals’ identities] to be tackled without the need for huge public investment.”

Separately, Davies argued that now some senior civil servants have expressed fears that the project is likely to fail, the government ought to publish all its reports on the feasibility of the scheme. “It is now all about trust,” Davies added. “The government has to restore some faith in the project.”

Simon, who has been a relentless and towering force in the privacy movement, responded to his critics as follows:

It’s important to recognise that context can be lost in any media report. In this case the quotes are accurate, though of course not complete. I’ve made similar remarks to conferences over the past six months, and for good reason. While it would have been nice to have seen the full conversation published, we all know that’s not the way media does its business.

I doubt that anyone who has followed the UK ID card debate, or indeed the debates in other countries, would have any doubt about where I stand on identity. My views are well known, mainly because government has made a point of repeatedly expressing them in public. I don’t resile from anything I’ve everr done or said on the subject.

As for these particular remarks, I will clarify the position.

1. You will know through the recent leaked emails that it is government, rather than Privacy International, that has lost the plot over the ID card. The Home Office is in disarray and Treasury wants it scrapped or severely limited;

2. You’ll also know from the leaked Market Soundings report that industry no longer supports the goverrnment’s scheme. I’ve know that for more than a year. Industry wants a manageable project that has a light structure and that carries public trust;

3. Into this context comes the idea that industry wanting to pursue the “right” approach (no compulsion, no central register etc) now have the opportunity to do so. Companies like EDS will always support the government line. Others are moving quickly to establish an alternative position.

4. The idea of the “White Knight Consortium” has been around since mid 2005, when it was first discussed at an industry-wide meeting of the Enterprise Privacy Group. I supported the idea then because it seemed the best way to derail the government approach.

I don’t see any need to defend myself, other than to observe how odd it feels to be hailed one day as the master strategist behind the ill-fortunes of the scheme, and the next to be condemned as a guy who lost the plot.

The “plot” is something I have well and truly in mind, and maybe you just need to reflect a little more on what I’m supporting and why I’m supporting it, rather than lashing out. Strategy and tactics on an issue like this are long term game-plans.

I've met Simon – in fact he's a privacy mentor for me.  It's true he's put a few noses out of joint over the last couple of decades.  No wonder – he was so far ahead of the rest of us in his thinking.  Talk to him for two minutes and you can see that he has worked with these issues for a long time, and understands them in a many-sided way.

Incredibly, in 1994, when people like me didn't yet have a clue we might encounter privacy issues with digital technology, he had already written Touching Big Brother – How biometric technology will fuse flesh and machine.   I don't throw out the word visionary lightly, but read this article and wonder.

Through his work at the London School of Economics he has spent a lot of time talking with cryptographers and computer scientists to understand what can actually be done to replace current systems with ones which really are privacy enhancing.  After all, does anyone think the current situation represents a Nirvanna?  Not me – I've seen too many of the existing systems.

It's true that through unlikely initiatives such as the proposed UK Identity Card system, replete with panopticon observation post and massive centralized database, the handling of our personal information and threat to our privacy could actually get worse than it currently is.  But I don't think this type of initiative will succeed – it's like building a sixty-foot man.

So, surely, it is just as possible that we can take advantage of the increased awareness around these issues – and the amazing new technological possibilities that have emerged in the last few years – to allow government and business to become more secure and more privacy enhancing than they currently are.

Given the proper adult supervision by privacy advocates and policy experts, industry could, as Simon says, bring to life alternatives to the Dr. No blueprints that have emerged so far. 

It may still be hard to imagine a national (or international) conversation that includes notions like “directional identity”, but I think it will come.  Governments will inevitably see that the way to best strengthen their own security is to build strong social consensus by protecting the privacy of citizens at the same time they look after the interests of the state.

As always, the key here is “User Control and Consent”.  Citizens have to want to use the system.  Close behind are “Minimal Disclosure” and “Directed Identifiers” and all the other Laws of Identity.  Any successful ID card will have to be more attractive than the status quo – proving it is a step forward, not backward, and winning support.


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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.