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Cabinet Office talks to Facebook & co about new ID system

Online access to public services could be via social networks

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Exclusive Facebook and other social networks could be used by British citizens to sign into public services online, The Register has learned.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman confirmed to us this morning that the department was speaking to "a range of industry" about its ID assurance scheme, a prototype for which is expected in October this year.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in the House of Commons last month that "people will be able to use the service of their choice to prove identity when accessing any public services [via the internet]."

Companies such as banks that already hold personal customer information in their databases will be among private sector organisations involved in the new system.

But social networks are also in the mix, too.

The Cabinet Office spokeswoman didn't want to offer specific details about individual companies such as Facebook and Google, instead preferring to say that "social networks could possibly be involved with the system."

She was keen to stress that "no data would be held by the government through the ID assurance scheme" because, in effect, the identity authentication process would be farmed out to a variety of players in the private sector.

Maude said in May that the Cabinet Office wanted to "create a market of accredited identity assurance services delivered by a range of private sector and mutualised suppliers."

Privacy advocates have already begun to question the Cabinet Office's identity assurance plans, with some claiming that it's building its very own National ID Card scheme, just without the card.

"This scheme is purely for public services," retorted the Cabinet Office spokeswoman, in response to those accusations.

"There's no more data held than we already have," she said.

In August last year, the Cabinet Office issued a pre-tender notice to encourage what it described as submissions from "trusted private sector identity service providers" on developing the concept of ID assurance.

But the Cabinet Office has been careful to insist that privacy would be at the forefront of such a system, and it has spoken with the likes of NO2ID in an effort to be seen to be doing the right thing.

NO2ID's Guy Herbert is yet to be convinced, however.

He expressed doubts in the comments section of one of our earlier stories on ID assurance last month.

"We don't want a nice-sounding scheme, with the appearance of a distributed trust network, to become a means in practice for departments to hoover up even more personal details of citizens, control identities, and/or to slosh the silos together.

"And for that reason we want a clear view of the legal framework first, because that, in government is a clearer guide to what can happen than any number of pretty diagrams," said Herbert.

Microsoft's erstwhile ID expert Kim Cameron expressed concerns about a current trend within the tech industry to offer a one-stop login shop to authenticate individual users. That's a trend that has arguably slipped into Cabinet Office policy.

Maude has cast his ID assurance plans as a way of cutting duplication and thereby saving money for the public purse.

As for timescales, the Cabinet Office will have a prototype of the system by the autumn with plans to "go to market" in April 2012. The first public services earmarked for testing of the system include the Department for Work and Pension’s universal credits, NHS HealthSpace, HMRC’s one click programmes and the Skills Funding Agency.

The Cabinet Office has ambitious plans to implement the scheme by August next year.

All of which suggests that the issue of the government's handling of British citizens' ID is about to get very interesting again. ®

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