The opening keynote at identity week in London was given by Oliver Dowden, the Minister for implementation at the Cabinet office and therefore the person in charge of the digital transformation of government. At Consult Hyperion we think digital identity is central to digital transformation of government (and the digital transformation of everything else, for that matter) so I was looking forward to hearing the UK government’s vision for digital identity. I accompanied the Minister on his visit to the IDEMIA stand where he was shown a range of attractive burgundy passports.
In his keynote, the Minister said that the UK is seen as being at the cutting edge of digital identity and that GOV.UK Verify is at the heart of that success.
(For foreign visitors, perhaps unfamiliar with this cutting edge position, a spirit of transparency requires me to note that back on 9th October 2016, Mr. Dowden gave written statement HCWS978 to Parliament, announcing that the government was going to stop funding Verify after 18 months with the private sector responsible for funding after that.)
Given that the government spends around £1.5 billion per annum on “identity, fraud, error, debt, how much identity costs to validate, and how much proprietary hardware and software bought”, it’s obviously important for them to set an effective strategy. Now, members of the public, who don’t really know or care about digital ID might be saying to themselves, “why can’t we just use ‘sign in with Apple’ to do our taxes?”, and this is a good point. Even if they are not saying it right now, they’ll be saying it soon as they get used to Apple’s mandate that all apps that allow third-party sign-in must support it.
Right now you can’t use a GOV.UK Verify Identity Provider to log into your bank or any other private sector service provider. But in his speech the Minister said that he looks forward to a time when people can use a single login to “access their state pension and the savings account” and I have to say I agree with him. Obviously you’d want a different single login for gambling and pornography, but that’s already taken care of as, according to Sky News, “thanks to its ill-conceived porn block, the government has quietly blundered into the creation of a digital passport – then outsourced its development to private firms, without setting clear limits on how it is to be used”. One of these firms runs the world’s largest pornography site, Pornhub, so I imagine they know a thing or two about population-scale identity management.
Back to the Minister’s point though. Yes, it would be nice to have some sort of ID app on my phone and it would be great if my bank and the HMRC and Woking Council and LinkedIn would all let me log in with this ID. The interesting question is how you get to this login. Put a PIN in that and we’ll come back to it later.
The Minister made three substantive points in the speech. He talked about:
- The creation of a new Digital Identity Unit, which is a collaboration between DCMS and Cabinet Office. The Unit will help foster co-operation between the public and private sector, ensure the adoption of interoperable standards, specification and schemes, and deliver on the outcome of the consultation.
- A consultation to be issued in the coming weeks on how to deliver the effective organisation of the digital identity market. Through this consultation the government will work with industry, particularly with sectors who have frequent user identity interactions, to ensure interoperable ‘rules of the road’ for identity.
- The start of engagement on the commercial framework for consuming digital identities from the private sector for the period from April 2020 to ensure the continued delivery of public services. The Government Digital Service will continue to ensure alignment of commercial models that are adopted by the developing identity market to build a flourishing ecosystem that delivers value for everyone.
The Minister was taken away on urgent business and therefore unable to stay for my speech, in which I suggested that the idea of a general-purpose digital identity might be quite a big bite to take at the problem. So it would make sense to look at who else might provide the “digital identities from the private sector” used for the delivery of public services. Assuming the current GOV.UK Verify identities fail to gain traction in the private sector, then I think there are two obvious private sector coalitions that might step in to do this for the government: the big banks and the big techs.
For a variety of reasons, I hope that the big banks are able to come together to respond to the comments of Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, on the necessity for a digital identity in the finance sector to work with the banks to develop some sort of financial services passport. I made some practical suggestions about this earlier in the year and have continued to discuss the concept with potential stakeholders. I think it stacks up, but we’ll have to see how things develop.
On the other hand, if the banks can’t get it together and the big techs come knocking, they are already showing off their solutions. I’ll readily admit that when the Minister first said “private sector identities”, the first thought to flash across my brain was “Apple”. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to go over to the HMRC web site fairly soon to find a “log in with Amazon” and “log in with Apple” next a button with some incomprehensible waffle about eIDAS that I, and most other normal consumers I’m sure, will simply ignore.
How do you use Apple ID to log into the Inland Revenue? Easy: you log in as you do now after sending off for the password and waiting for it to come in the post and that sort of thing and then once you are connected tell them the Apple ID that you want to use in the future. If you want to be “email@example.com” or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s just an identifier for the Revenue to recognise you in the future. Then next time you go to the Inland Revenue, you log in as firstname.lastname@example.org, something pops up on your iPhone and you put your thumb on it or look at it, and bingo you logged in to fill out your PAYE.