The Nature of the Relationship, part 2

In which we look more deeply into that business of what an online trusted relationship actually means—over and above the mechanics of actually “proving” something about it to a particular degree.

New readers will probably want to read an introductory piece, a logical separation of issues relating to trust from those of identity relationship, and the post immediately preceding this one. (Keener-eyed regular readers may now be getting some clues as to what this oddity was all about.)

So we’ve found so far that some of the stuff we imagine should be quite simple, isn’t. A single log-in using one identifier to get to lots of services is a shaky concept. In theory, it should be fine (we can create models very easily in our minds of things that work like that and don’t cause much difficulty). But in practice it creates what—at scales of national, or even widespread local level—quickly become data management and security nightmares. It leaves the way open for other things, perhaps unwanted, to be attached to that identifier, covertly or overtly. And, assuming that you provide a few different passwords or other tokens, or even add in some biometric checks to the mix (coz you wouldn’t want to lock all your possessions using just one type of key, would you?), you begin, very quickly, to make things very much more complex. And we’re trying to use online channels to simplify, save money and increase access, aren’t we?

There’s an inherent tension here: if the credentials you use are powerful enough to actually be trusted and useful, then they quickly become fraught with risk and unusability. I’d suggest that the risks scale faster than the benefits, which might account for the fact that a plain old general “account” type relationship with government hasn’t made much progress in well over a dozen years of (expensive) trying.

There are some twists too that come from the fact that it’s government we’re talking about here, not an online bookseller. We take a different view, as I wrote in the previous post, about business risks that attach to public sector transactions. Many people quite naturally think of government as one indivisible entity, even though many different agencies, people, standards, systems and contractors may be involved. That’s just reality. We want government to have an overall view of us a whole when it suits us, for instance when changing name, address, or informing of a death (à la Tell Us Once programme), but on the other hand we don’t want everything too joined up. We really don’t. Contradictions, paradoxes, tensions…

A few other twists: because these services are public, we expect (and deserve) the very highest standards of accessibility. And, if we’re serious about building them as part of the infrastructure of life in the UK, having a decent quality connection to actually get to them is a good start. We’d like to have more options about where transactions are served—to have more flexible models of delivery so that government might offer an interface to its processing engine, allowing other bodies to run a user front-end. But we want to be absolutely sure we don’t create brand confusion, or create gaps that accountability can fall through. Contradictions, paradoxes…

Oh, just one more—if your bookseller stuffs up with your account, you go to another bookseller: there isn’t another government—how do you really think you’re going to get your data back? (There’s more, but this is just a quick glide through some of the reasons we can’t just take a completely standard ecommerce approach to this.)

But, and it’s a big but, many of these challenges arise if we’re trying to envisage an account-type relationship with government. We’re conditioned to do so. We’ve been trained. By customer relationship systems in the commercial sector—we have Amazon, Google, eBay and our bank accounts—and we even have an HMRC online tax account. It looks, and feels, a bit like any other financial service. Surely there’s nothing more natural than trying to extend this concept to accessing health records, to applying for things like licenses, to making complex choices about social care? If you’re getting a bit wary that an “account” is a bit of a conceptual stretch for something you do only once every ten years (bearing in mind what’s gone before in these posts about the problems with a “general purpose” relationship) then you’re probably right. But that’s another side-turning we might explore separately.

If, and I believe this to be true, the concept of a general citizen account—a governmental panopticon which stores, links and serves us a unified whole—lies out of our reach, whether for privacy, security, complexity or technical constraints (and combinations thereof), is there another way?

The answer, we hope, is yes. US and UK policy at the moment is bent on developing along these lines, anyway.

The concept of this alternative: a trusted identity framework is tricky. There’s a particularly good description here of some of the concepts involved—which I’m not going to attempt to rewrite, for the moment. Except to note that it contains useful concepts such as what I like to call “transferability of trust”—the ability to reuse a trusted relationship (a classic one being that if you log into your bank online, it’s seriously likely that the bank will hold the correct address for you, and be able to confirm it) to do other things. You don’t have to reenter or reprove it, but crucially, government doesn’t have to go through the business of verifying and processing it, either.

But fragmenting the Nature of the Relationship like this is not without its problems. It doesn’t give us Tell Us Once (about changes of circumstances). Far from it—it deliberately compartmentalises an interaction so that just those bits which need to be proved, get proved. The eventual models of relationship that emerge are still being determined, I think—with relationships emerging that vary from entirely anonymous (though verified where needed) to increasingly rich with personal information. Maybe there is a Tell Us Once-type account at the bottom of the well, but I seriously doubt it. It’s all going to be a long and tricky journey.

I might bring back the Greek and his pet for a play with a trusted identity framework later. Might. This is heavy going ;)

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