The government’s approach to electronic proofs of identity will have implications for solicitors in the near future.
I’m what they call an early adopter of new technologies (OK, a bit of a mug), so I joined Facebook in the first year it was opened to all internet users. Uncharacteristically, I chose a fairly sensible - secure - password. I have upgraded it and signed up to other security measures regularly since.
I don’t suppose my precautions would trouble the US National Security Agency for long, but I hope I’m reasonably secure against opportunistic amateur hacking.
This matters a bit more than preventing crooks from spamming my friends in my name. Over the past couple of years I have got used to the convenience of using my Facebook sign-up for numerous other online accounts. If it were compromised it would now be a serious embarrassment. But perhaps not quite as much of an embarrassment as it would be if anyone could sign away my family’s home through my Facebook account.
This proposition is not quite as crazy as it sounds. One of the first actions of the current government was to carry through manifesto promises to abandon Labour’s national identity card scheme. You’ll remember that the plan was to issue (and make citizens pay for) cards that could be verified against a massive central identity database. Nearly everyone cheered.
However, the project’s abandonment left a big hole in the ongoing programme to cut the cost of transactions with officialdom by moving them online. One of the main planned purposes of the ID card was to act as a token with which people could prove their entitlement to government services, specifically government money, over the internet.
To its credit, the current government has moved away from a nightmare vision of a central database recording every encounter citizens have with officialdom, from requesting the collection of an old sofa to applying for a passport. However its replacement for the central identity database doesn't seem to be getting as much attention as it deserves. A scheme called ID Assurance, being managed by the Government Digital Service, part of the Cabinet Office, aims to create a 'mixed economy' of online identities with which citizens can authenticate transactions with public services.
The commendable idea is that we get a choice of whom we trust with our personal data, and that the state gets only what it needs to know. Again sensibly, the idea is to require different levels of authentication for different services: a social network sign-in might be adequate to pay a bill or comment on a government website; applying for a payment or registering a property transaction should require much more rigorous electronic identity.
Solicitors will see where this is going. One of the first official transactions to rely on the new friendly and bespoke approach to electronic identities is that of applying for lasting power of attorney. As I reported in the Gazette's news pages last week, the Office of the Public Guardian is proposing to allow individuals wishing to sign the deed to prove their identities electronically, removing the need for signatures to be witnessed. In the words of the consultation, this will be aligned with the 'emerging cross-government approach' to identity assurance.
It admits that 'work on this proposal is at an early stage'.
I should make it clear that no one - yet - has proposed that Facebook identities should be adequate proofs of identity for lasting powers of attorney. But the government has already signed up five companies to provide identity services and more will follow, and I believe the programme deserves more attention than it is currently getting.
The consultation closes on 26 November. In the meantime, I recommend making sure your Twitter and Facebook passwords are nice and robust - you may end up using them for more than you think.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor