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Losing the plot: UK government lining up Facebook to help manage controversial new virtual ID card scheme

BusinessBlog
, 04 Oct 2012Blog
Losing the plot: UK government lining up Facebook to help manage controversial new virtual ID card scheme

The immortal words of yesteryear US tennis star John McEnroe cannot help but come to mind when mulling over recent reports indicating that the UK government is contemplating farming out elements of a controversial new initiative to the private sector.

According to prominent daily newspaper The Independent among others, the latest sketchy plans for a national identity scheme - most recently anointed with the Newspeak-like moniker 'Identify Assurance Programme' – show that ministers are weighing up the possibility of utilising mobile technology and, more mind-bogglingly, social media as a central part of the plan.

Specifically, the government is considering the possibility of setting up a system whereby citizens would be able to use their social network profiles as a valid form of identification when logging-in to public services portals, with everything from applications for fishing licenses to tax credit claims being accessible via existing online accounts.

Such a scheme would resemble existing web protocols that allow Internet users to access various sites and utilise certain online services – posting a comment on ITProPortal's iPhone 5 vs Samsung Galaxy S3 spec comparison via Disqus is one example – through pre-existing accounts, with Google and Facebook among the most popular and prevalent easy log-in options.

It's not just hearsay, either, with a Cabinet Office spokesman confirming the reports to ZDNet UK: "Facebook and people like that are potential providers. I'm not in a position to name individual companies that might be IDA providers [but] any ID assurance provider that can meet the level of assurance that we want can clearly provide that service."

So what's the fuss? Well, for starters, any use of social media accounts for official government purposes risks creating a de facto 'real-name system' – currently active only in China - whereby web users are coerced into providing wholly accurate personal information on social networks if they want to be able to fully utilise the site in question.

Moreover, if your Facebook profile is required to match government records, Mark Zuckerberg will also have to validate your identity in some way – and that means getting hold of your credit card or address details, or something similarly sensitive. Whatever your personal opinion of the curly-haired college dropout and his world domination vehicle, it's definitely one of the less edifying prospects in the digital world.

Then there's the considerable security risk, which is arguably the most significant argument against such a scheme. While the online arena is adequately protected in some instances, social networks have a reputation for being especially porous when it comes to secure data storage: LinkedIn, eHarmony, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Formspring have all suffered breaches of varying severity this year. The notion of nab my Facebook password, steal my passport is a pretty terrifying scenario, as is the possibility that LinkedIn could have a cache of credit card details the next time it gets electronically violated.

So why would the government want to implement such a harebrained scheme? One potential explanation points to yet another danger, not to mention a worrying ethos. It's not just that it is likely to be cheaper to utilise existing infrastructures than to create new ones, but outsourcing responsibility for government log-in services could also be seen as absolving the powers that be of a certain degree of culpability when things go wrong - something that tends to happen with alarming frequency in the world of UK politics.

Not sure what's going on with that driver's license renewal? Don't worry, the recorded message will inform you that it's not the DVLA's fault, but that you need to call up PayPal for an update. Or to contact Tesco for an explanation when your local authority makes a bungle of your council tax adjustment. Or to pop down to the local high street and speak to the teller at NatWest because you've been overcharged for your on-street parking permit.

OK, maybe that's a bit of an unfair dig, as the banks – to date – have done a fairly decent job of protecting customer data in the digital arena. In fact, the online banking model is one of the few that the government could legitimately look at utilising, as the system is already adequately secure and is built on accurate information.

But ultimately, whatever the myriad compelling arguments against the involvement of social networks in official business are, the most convincing case is simply the feeling you get in your gut – it just doesn't sound right. If this is the road the government starts to go down, then what's next? Roadside breathalyser tests conducted by McDonald's? MI5 intelligence reports shared across Twitter? It sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? Yet it's worryingly similar to what's actually being serious debated.

Facebook protecting my tax returns and presiding over my speeding points? Insert expletives as you please, but you cannot be serious.

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