Facebook is not trusted to provide government ID system

The government will not be using Facebook as part of its Digital Identity Assurance project - a key platform in the drive to deliver more public services online - because of concerns over how the social network uses personal data.

The government will not be using Facebook as part of its digital identity assurance project - a key platform in the Cabinet Office drive to get more citizens accessing public sector services online - because Whitehall does not trust the way the social network uses customer data.

Identity Assurance (IDA) will be the means through which citizens electronically provide their personal details to access government services, as more transactions move to a "digital by default" model. The project is to be provided by a range of private sector organisations to enable users to choose which company they wish to transmit their details through. But despite previous speculation, Facebook will not be involved.

"Facebook is one organisation that we haven't spoken to, because we are concerned about what they may do with people's data," Bill McCluggage, deputy government CIO, told Computer Weekly.

"We are hoping to create an ecosystem of suppliers. We are talking to a series of people in organisations at a senior level. Not banks so much as companies which have some form of ID service provision built into them."

McCluggage added that the government also intends not to use its traditional route of big systems integrators (SIs) to provide identity assurance.

"We are not going to the SIs. We believe the market that will deliver is the one which touches citizens," he said.

The Cabinet Office is in talks with the Post Office, Visa, and Sky, said McCluggage. Vodafone and other telecoms companies in the Far East have also been consulted as the government wishes to make use of advancements in near-field communication (NFC) technology in mobile phones.

"We have got to hit the Universal Credit window by 2013. And by then the mobile industry will have changed rapidly. We are keen to future-proof the project by looking at how we could use things like NFC," he said.

Protecting citizen privacy will be key to the project, said McCluggage: "We have to be customer focused - the customer has to be protected under the Data Protection Act. As servants of the taxpayer, we have a duty of care."

The Cabinet Office has been in talks with privacy campaigners to address concerns about how personal citizen information will be used. The project had previously come under fire for being a resurrection of the controversial ID card system created under Labour and later scrapped by the coalition.

Guy Herbert, general secretary at privacy campaign group No2ID, said the government's reluctance to use Facebook in the delivery of the project is not assurance in itself against a misuse of public data.

"Given Facebook's fairly iffy reputation, it doesn't come as a great surprise that it's not a qualifying party for these sorts of services. But I don't want to say the project must be OK just because the government won't be using Facebook," he said.

There is still an issue regarding large companies designing systems which could serve their commercial interests rather than the interests of the citizen, said Herbert.

But it is still too early to judge the project, he adds: "I hope it is possible for systems to operate whereby you can essentially prove authority to do things without providing unnecessary data not relating to the task in hand. I think the Cabinet Office has its heart in the right place. It's trying to do something reasonable, but the proof will be in the pudding, particularly given Whitehall's reputation for having a 'file everything' culture."

The first projects to be delivered using identity assurance will be the Department for Work and Pensions Universal Credits scheme; HM Revenue & Customs' One Click and Real-Time Information, NHS HealthSpace, and the Skills Funding Agency Customer Identification project.

A prototype for IDA will be completed by the end of the year. The first services will be developed and tested by February 2012, with IDA due to be rolled out for initial public services by autumn 2012.

Read more on E-commerce technology