[Dave Birch] Well I managed to get myself invited to the launch of Forum friend Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom‘s new book. As the government’s technology outreach czar, he makes a point of having his personal assistant Patricia use all forms of new information and communication technology. He has, of late, been dictating tweets for her to place on the Twitter and now, to ensure that these valuable insights into the heart of British government IT policy are preserved for posterity, they have been gathered together in “The Twitters of Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom“. I wasn’t sure about the current regulations concerning the photographing of key civil servants, but I managed to sneak a few pictures and have put them on Flickr for the general public to peruse. Here are a few of them so that you can see what was going on (I spotted known activists in the crowd and am perfectly prepared to hand my footage over to the relevant authorities on the condition of pseudonymity).

Given Sir Bonar’s famous “ring of soup” formulation for government identity management services, I was keen to ask him how he sees the evolving balance between privacy and surveillance. In particular, I was curious about his views on Umair Haque succinct note that

The internet itself isn’t disempowering government by giving voices to the traditionally voiceless; it’s empowering authoritarian states to limit and circumscribe freedom by radically lowering the costs of surveillance and enforcement.

[From The Social Media Bubble – Umair Haque – Harvard Business Review]

Unless we take steps to build an identity infrastructure that embodies certain protections, encodes certain balances, then I think it is perfectly reasonable to anticipate a path whereby governments become authoritarian by default, simply becuase they can and not because of any directed or debated policy. I don’t think that you have to be some kind of privacy nutter to find this a concern: unfortunately, I was not able to put this point to Sir Bonar because he had to leave for a pressing bottle of claret, but I perhaps I will be able to catch up with him again in the not-too-distant future.

Another thing I will seek his clarification on is that I still don’t understand what the British government’s policy is. Having abolished the national identity card and introduced the “Manifesto for a Networked Nation”, they now want to move all transactional public services online:

On the other hand, promises like scrapping the budget deficit require governments to enable more and more government services to be provided on-line and these services need trusted identities to transact with. But what to call such virtual e-identity cards, to stop pundits shouting they are just bringing identity cards in under a different name?

[From IdentitySpace – Powered By Bloglines]

This is a really good point, and it came up in a conversation that I was involved in with part of UK government recently. Clearly, we need some kind of online identity card to get stuff done, but if we call it an online identity card then the press will go beserk, politicians will scream blue murder and many of the public won’t use it. I think one way forward might be to develop something along the lines of the US National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace: in fact, I think that not developing something along these lines will hamstring government efforts to get services online.

The government’s digital engagement czar, Martha Lane Fox, has just published a report about moving transactional public services online. Here’s what it has to say about the important issues of identity management and authentication for such services:

directgov2 directgov1

I imagine that sort of thing will be covered in a future report. Yet before that report arrives, politicians are dealing with “identity problems” in essentially random ways. This is what happens when you apply cardboard-age solutions to communication-age problems: you make the problems worse. In the UK, Nick Clegg (the Deputy Prime Minister) has proposed setting up a national identity fraud service to make it easy as possible to commit identity fraud on a large scale. Instead of the electoral roll storing only your name and address (which means you get junk mail), he says that

So we are committed to tackling [electoral] fraud by speeding up the move to individual – as opposed to household – registration. That will be introduced in 2014, as opposed to after the next election, as the previous government proposed. People will need to register themselves, and provide a signature, national insurance number and date of birth.

[From Deputy Prime Minister sets out vision for political reform]

So now anyone with access to that register will be able to take over your identity at a stroke, since all of these can be trivially copied. How will this help (and in particular, how will it help in a country that has a third more national insurance numbers than it does workers?). Far from the government creating an infrastructure of trusted identities, it is creating an infrastructure of entirely untrustworthy identities,

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

1 comment

  1. Dave, for a look at a government thinking hard about identity information management, privacy, internet scalablity, public services, security and trust check some of the collateral available here:
    There’s a nifty beer store video embedded in the education module.
    If more governments could discover the winning aspects of the user-centric, and claims based, approach for digital identity, we might have more forward progress.

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