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Tech sector tells government that digital identity policy is 'urgently required'

The UK tech sector has urged the government to publish policy to support the creation of a “fully functioning” digital identity market, to boost the digital economy

The UK tech sector has urged the government to publish policy to support the creation of a “fully functioning” digital identity market, to boost the digital economy.

TechUK, the IT industry trade body, has called for the appointment of a digital identity czar in Whitehall to lead collaboration between the private and public sectors. In a report launched today, TechUK also pushed for greater clarity about the future of Verify, the troubled digital ID system developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS), and for more public sector data to be made available to facilitate more effective online identity verification.

“To ensure the UK does not fall behind other countries, we must create an interoperable framework for digital IDs which spans the public and private sectors,” said Julian David, CEO of TechUK.

“We see instances where companies which want to bring world-class solutions to UK users often struggle to get support, either due to a reluctance to innovate or lack of a joined-up approach from key public sector bodies,” he said. “Too often, tech companies encounter difficulties which delay or obstruct innovation. It is particularly frustrating to hear British companies do not experience these problems in other countries.”

Citing the growth in fraud, identity theft and the hindering of online innovation as the cost of further delay, the report says that “a coherent strategy is urgently required”.

“The plea from many in the tech industry is that the issue of identity needs to be joined up to tackle the need to manage multiple digital identities and consumer expectations on ease of access to all types of online service,” said the report.

“Tech companies small and large are keen to assist and are coming up with solutions, but they are encountering hurdles in outdated legislation, the complexity of the regulatory landscape and in achieving recognition of their solutions in the market.”

Policy principles

Computer Weekly understands the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which took over responsibility for digital ID from GDS last year, has developed policy principles but is yet to publish its recommendations. The DCMS team working on the policy has been moved to work on Brexit issues instead.

The tech sector has expressed its frustration with government over digital identity for some time, particularly given the monopoly inherent in the Verify model that restricts access to digital public services to a select group of identity providers.

“The UK needs a detailed workable strategy through which the Verify scheme is to evolve into a standards-based ecosystem,” said the TechUK report.

“The government should set out a clear strategy for digital identity which will operate across the board. This is the only way to help both the public and private sector stay ahead of fraud and to allow UK citizens and companies to fully benefit from the digital world.”

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The Cabinet Office has attempted to make Verify mandatory for central government online services, but the poor performance of the system led several departments to develop their own approach. GDS is understood to have spent more than £130m on Verify development to date. However, the system is used on only 19 digital public services. About half of users are unable to successfully register on Verify.

HM Revenue & Customs is developing a new version of its existing Government Gateway, while NHS England is developing its own identity system, after saying Verify is not secure enough for the health service. The Scottish government is also pressing ahead with its own digital identity plans, with the aim of producing a prototype this year.

The Department for Work and Pensions found hundreds of thousands of benefits applicants are unable to register successfully on Verify when applying for Universal Credit, and has been forced to set up offline alternatives for as many as 60% of claimants.

In October, the Cabinet Office confirmed it will cease investment in Verify in 2020, and hand the system over to the private sector, a move welcomed by the industry. But the TechUK report says the government needs to give a fuller explanation of the future plans.

“The current Verify scheme has not been used by citizens in the numbers envisaged and is costly for public sector organisations. Signing up is a difficult and lengthy process, involving knowledge-based questions to which many citizens will not know the answers,” said the report.

“The cost of setting up and running Verify has been considerable. As the existing government contracts will cease in 2020, more transparency would assist in restoring public and business confidence.”

Open up data

DCMS is expected to recommend that government extends use of the Document Checking Service, a tool developed for Verify that allows identity providers access to passport and driving licence data, for ID verification. Opening up application programming interfaces (APIs) to the data would allow private sector firms to deliver more effective identity systems.

The TechUK report further calls on government to enable other organisations, such as professional membership bodies or utilities, to use their data for identity assurance, and to expand the number of people able to set up digital IDs. Many people that have attempted to use Verify find their digital footprint is insufficient to prove online that they are who they say they are.

The report also points out that government plans for age verification for online porn sites would be helped with a better digital identity ecosystem in place, suggesting digital methods should be given comparable legal status to paper-based processes.

Other recommendations from TechUK include setting up an independent authority to oversee digital identity, clarifying the law around use of biometric data, and better government communications to raise public awareness of the importance of digital identity.

“The ability for individuals and businesses to use digital identities is key to unlocking value and facility of use for a wide range of services in both the public and private sectors. It will enable new services to be made available, secure against fraud, allow connectivity among digital services and greatly contribute to the economy as a whole,” said the TechUK report.

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