Federated identity 'can transform e-government'

Better, faster, more efficient online services... so why isn't it happening?
Written by Will Sturgeon, Contributor

Better, faster, more efficient online services... so why isn't it happening?

Leading public sector IT bosses have told silicon.com they would welcome moves by the UK government to adopt federated identity in order to provide the public with faster, more efficient access to online services. But one expert believes the government has been too preoccupied with the controversial ID cards project to consider such a solution.

Federation would essentially mean government departments would share the public's identities across their systems and authenticate against one another. This would speed the process of signing in and using multiple online services and would eliminate layers of administration.

Richard Steel, head of ICT at London Borough of Newham, gave such a system a ringing endorsement. "I see it as the way forward," he told silicon.com.

He said: "I believe there are major benefits to people being enabled to 'single sign-on' to government and other web services, while maintaining control of their own identities."

Steel added: "For me, federated identity, together with tiered authentication depending upon service context and sensitivity is the key to opening up pan-government services and driving service uptake."

Richard Hall, CTO at Avanade, said: "How do you deal with a member of the public who may have various identities within your databases? They may be a home owner, a voter, a congestion charge payer, a customer for street sweeping and all these identities may be separate."

That is indicative of the levels of inefficiency Steel, for one, says needs to be ironed out.

Alan Brown, director of information management and technology at West London Mental Health Trust, told silicon.com: "I am generally in favour of all organisations - especially in the public sector - being as joined up as possible.

"I can see the benefits in having a person's identity verified and certain demographic information already available. It would help in the delivery of social services, health, education, etc."

Brown said his experiences as both a public sector professional and as a member of the public have led him to believe federation can make for smoother, more efficient e-government.

He said: "I have personally submitted my tax returns online and the process of getting a username and password was rigorous and intensive and I would support the same 'identity' being available for me to access other services."

However, Brown expressed concerns that in an age of identity theft federation could play into the hand of criminals. "My main concern is that the rise in identity theft means that if someone's identity is stolen then the thief potentially has access to a lot of information in one go," he said, though he proposed developments in hard-factor authentication and biometrics could resolve such issues in the future.

Brown said he would also expect to be able to manage how his identity is used. "I would favour transparency in knowing which services have access to the identity and having an opt-out from some of this information sharing if I so wished," he said.

Pre-empting arguments some members of the public may bring up, Newham's Steel added: "I am sure there will be those who have concerns about 'big brother' and civil liberties - but I think that benefits include the fact that we will be establishing overt controls, rather than the many 'covert systems' - credit cards, mobile phones etc, that already exist."

Andrew Lloyd, VP security management at CA, agreed it is of paramount importance that governments ensure federation is not akin to open season on identities - and he said it should be implemented to ensure only relevant data is viewable by relevant departments and the user maintains ownership of their identity.

But with strong incentives for the government and the public, Lloyd urged the powers that be in Westminster to look at federation.

However he said there is "real irony" in the fact consideration of federation as a way to better-provide government services and public identity management may have been on-hold due to the focus on ID cards - a more controversial and more widely questioned identity issue.

He said major IT projects within the NHS, for example, are also likely to have severely hindered the process: "The government now needs to use this next time period to ensure joined up government is there."

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