The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is grooming a British tech start-up to play a key role in its £2bn Universal Credit benefits system and give shape to the coalition government's plans for identity assurance in a world without identity cards.
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The start-up firm, Mydex, is developing technology that promises to take power over identity assurance out of government hands and place it with individuals, and take responsibility for identity assurance out of Whitehall and leave it to the market. The firm is being lined up as a solution to a number of public sector computing issues.
Foremost for the DWP, which is trialling Mydex as a means for people to log in, register, manage and collect their Universal Credit, is the technology's potential to save the government from trying to build its own identity assurance platform when budgets are tight, and after the Labour government's efforts on the Identity Cards scheme proved so costly and such a political and technical failure.
Steve Riley, IT director at Job Centre Plus, told Computer Weekly that DWP and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), which are jointly developing Universal Credit, have been given until the end of the year to establish an identity assurance blueprint for the new benefits system.
"We definitely need to crack that," he said. "And Mydex is one of the things that's in the pot. DWP is involved in a Mydex pilot with local authorities. We need to have an answer and a plan by the end of this year."
The clock is ticking on Mydex's as-yet unproven technology, just as it is on the host of government services that are counting on the Mydex pilots delivering a working identity assurance system before the winter of this parliament's term.
Mydex is aiming to have its system fully operational by the end of the year, a deadline that will coincide not only with crunch-time for Universal Credit but also the unveiling by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude of the coalition's market-led solution to identity assurance in government.
Dane Wright, IT strategy manager at London Borough of Brent, which as lead of the Mydex pilot recently conducted the world's first live data exchange between citizen and government, said government agencies need to find a credible way of authenticating people's identities online now they would be unable to use identity cards.
"The abandonment of the ID Scheme was positive from a data privacy point of view. But from an electronic identity assurance point of view, it's rather unfortunate," said Wright.
The identity cards system would have drawn from government databases a real-time authorisation that Whitehall departments could use to check someone's identity before allowing them to perform sensitive tasks such as paying council tax, claiming benefit or changing their address.
Mydex proposes doing the same thing, but by acting as an agent for individuals, and drawing nuggets of identity authorisation from an ecosystem that already includes credit reference agency Experian and may extend to a range of other sources, from clubs to doctors, banks and perhaps even the Home Office's passport database.
The DWP had been at the heart of the cross-government system of databases that was to underpin the Identity Card Scheme but became embroiled in intractable differences over governance, ownership and funding with HMRC that effectively made the whole project unfeasible.
Mydex was co-founded by digital rights activist William Heath, an advisor to the Open Rights Group and founder of IT research firm Kable.