Facebook to replace ID card scheme

John E Dunn, Computerworld UK |

The UK Government is pressing ahead with potentially controversial plans that will let citizens to log on to a range of Government services using external digital identities such as Facebook, online banks and mobile phone accounts.

Government-issued ID cards for UK citizens might have gone away but the Government sees digital identities from the private sector as the next best thing.

Offered as part of the Identity Assurance (IDA) programme floated in 2011, trusted identities could let people authenticate themselves for tax credits, benefits, car tax payments, passport applications and even student loans through the one-stop gov.uk website.

In principle, almost any third party could be used as a personal identity as long as they have been passed fit as an IDA provider. Verification would be built into the system in the form of users’ mobile numbers and secondary security questions, reports have said.

The self-assessment and tax sites have not been mentioned by reports from the cabinet Office but applying the same system to this service might require some re-engineering ; at the moment, HMRC’s site uses tax payer reference numbers as the user name.

Motivation for the idea includes the 2013-14 roll-out of the universal credit benefit system by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the belief that access to online services won’t work well if users are expected to create yet another login they are likely to forget.

“We want to enable people to be able to prove their identity online — if they choose to — without the need for any national, central scheme. This way the citizen remains in charge, not the state,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson was quoted as saying.

What that does, of course, is shift the security burden to those sites, which raises obvious security concerns. What if users don’t secure those logins well? Or use one login for a number of sites which are then undermined by a data breach?

One answer is introducing two-factor authentication although this doesn’t answer the issue of fake identities set up on third-party sites by criminals. The obvious answer to this is that providers will have to meet a stringent test. Current password systems used to access government services are not inherently secure.

The plans have had a mixed reception.

“Governments around the world are rightly looking to social networks as one piece of the identity puzzle,” said Ping Identity director, Andi Hindle.

“This move will not only foster the adoption of online Government services, benefiting citizens, but also reduce the risks and costs associated with identity management for the UK Government.”

Others had more reservations. “Although this is a fine scheme in principle and is backed by ministers the danger is that it could be side-lined and used as a fig leaf by the data-hungry government departments,” said No2ID general secretary Guy Herbert, quoted in The Independent.