UK govt poised to embrace open source for PKI standards

Credibility transplant for e-Envoy?

The UK government e-Envoy, he of the Microsoft-only Government portal, seems to have got religion after all. In what unkind individuals might term one of the great u-turns of our time, an open source approach to PKI currently looks very close to being adopted for the second round of PKI interoperability trials, to be conducted by the UK Communications-Electronics Security Group [CESG] later this year.

Consultancy group Netproject was awarded the contract to produce proposals for this, and these were submitted at the beginning of this week. Netproject does not yet have the green light to go ahead with phase two, but according to Netproject director Eddie Bleasdale the proposals were warmly received - so it looks good.

Bleasdale's arguments in favour of open source PKI are compelling, and provided the government buys into them, the implications are considerable. "We must have PKIs that are totally interoperable," he says, but with proprietary PKI implementations there is no clearly defined yardstick available, plus plenty of scope for vendors arguing the toss over whose fault it is when they don't work together.

By using open source PKI technology, Bleasdale argues that the government could cut straight through this. It would have a clearly defined standard for testing against, and the source code would be available. So if your proprietary PKI didn't work, it'd by definition be your fault unless you could show there was something wrong with the source, and you wouldn't get approved for use in UK government systems.

According to project Director Dr Andrew Findlay, @It is desirable that an open-source PKI be entered in the interoperability testing and demonstration. Among the benefits to flow will be the provision of a non-proprietary 'neutral ground' where vendors can work directly with the code at both ends of a communication." Which is the wordier way of putting it.

If Netproject does get the phase two gig the Office of the e-Envoy stands at least some chance of salvaging its battered reputation. The UK Government Gateway, www.gateway.gov.uk, has already been loudly trumpeted by Microsoft as a wondrous .NET operation, and currently effectively bars anything but Windows and IE from using all of its services. It's also still punting out untrue error messages, as Opera CTO Håkon Lie has been forcefully pointing out to John Wailing of the Cabinet Office.

It'll take quite a lot to claw back from that position, but levelling the playing field would be a pretty good start. ®

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Related Link

Netproject's announcement (click on media output to get to it)

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