Lack of trust hampers UK e-government target

Three-quarters of UK public services will be online by the end of 2002, but trust issues will hamper the next steps, says the e-envoy's office

Three-quarters of services provided by central government in the UK will be available online by the end of 2002, according to an official from the Office of the e-Envoy. However, he admitted that lack of trust in the Internet will hamper the government in reaching its target to put all government services online by 2005.

"We thought by now there would be a market for trust services," said Dr Stephen Marsh, director of security policy at the Office of the e-Envoy, "but it is not happening at the speed we need for our 2005 targets." A trust service, or online authentication service, identifies a user on the Web to third parties and avoids the need to continually log-in to Web sites -- Microsoft's Passport is one of the best-known examples.

A government-backed scheme to support trust services has only approved two in two years, but Dr Marsh believes that the government can still make its target, by using more old-fashioined accreditation on government Web sites.

Fifty-four percent of central government services are online already, said Dr Marsh, and 75 percent will be online by the end of the year. However, the majority of the systems online so far are just information-providing Web sites, not transactional services, he admitted.

Most of those that need to authenticate users, such as the Inland Revenue, will not do so online, but will use a password sent on paper through the post, as most banks currently do, he said.

"Getting services online is relatively straightforward," he said, especially for a body like the Inland Revenue that holds address data and a customer number (such as a National Insurance number). "The issues will develop as time goes on and government transforms."

Eventually, online authentication will have to be possible, he said, without excluding people: "The irony is that those who interact most with government, those on benefits and the like, have least access." More affluent people who have fast Internet connections only interact with Government a couple of times a year, to file a tax return and pay road tax, for instance.

In future, government bodies want to share identity information, so that registering with one site will allow your information to be used elsewhere (without contravening the Data Protection Act, of course) but that is contentious, from both a political and a technical point of view.

Politically, sharing information between government agencies is a hot potato because it has civil liberties implications, while technically, it requires a "trust service provider", also known as a "trusted third party", which is only evolving.

The government supports a Web site "kitemark" called tScheme, which is supposed to accredit bodies that are providing trust services. The scheme has been operating for two years, and has just accredited its first two service providers, the Royal Bank of Scotland's Trust Assured service and Trustis' Certificate Factory. Another four services are in the approval pipeline.

"We hope that we and the industry can collectively pull something out of the bag on this one," said Dr Marsh, though he acknowledged the difficulty of creating trust with technology, and then communicating it to users. The complex information that is required to explain trust services is the very thing that destroys users' trust by making them wary, he said.

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