Inside Whitehall: The Government is aiming to set the standards for online security

If the project is successful it will not be long before you’ll be able to read your medical records or consult a doctor online


17 October 2012 is a date that sticks in the memory of Mike Bracken, the Government’s digital director. It was the day that perhaps the largest IT project ever undertaken by the civil service went live – and absolutely nothing terrible happened.

Nothing crashed. Nobody’s data was lost. No budget was overspent and nobody was dragged in front of Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee for a  ritual savaging.

In the troubled history of government and computers, it was a memorable date indeed.

Here is something rather unlikely: Whitehall is actually now getting rather good at IT – and the “” transformation of 15 months ago is some proof of that.

Anyone who has ever clicked on the Government’s official website will have noticed the difference.

Instead of dozens of different sites for every ministerial department and public-sector agency – each with its own different look, way of organising information and individual quirks – there is now just a single portal for everything that the Government does.

It all looks the same, works in the same way – and most importantly, is designed for people who need to use Government services or seek information online but don’t want to be bamboozled by policy documents, ministerial pronouncements or statistical updates.

Behind the scenes, the transformation required building an entirely new architecture for the Government’s presence online that was simple to use, coherent and stable. On the night of switchover it required the redirection of 134,000 individual web pages onto the new system in a matter of hours, while ensuring that the old links still worked.

Perhaps hardest of all, it required behind-the-scenes politics to corral the notoriously independent departments to give up their own digital fiefdoms and embrace a single, unified approach.

But this is just the start. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has now embarked on a project with much wider ramifications which, if successful, will not only have a profound effect on how we, as citizens, interact with the state – but also how we interact online in general.

GDS is seeking a solution to a problem that affects not just Government, but anyone dealing in personal information over the web: how do you know the person you are dealing with online is who they say they are?

Until now, the Government, banks and commercial organisations have all built individual systems of online verification, at significant cost and with varying success. Now GDS are attempting to create a new market for identity verification – underpinned by Government standards – and accessible to the private sector as well. 

It works like this: starting later this year, anyone wanting to use a Government service online (such as renewing a tax disc or passport, filling in a tax return (or, eventually, claiming universal credit) will be asked to set up an identity verification account.

These will be privately provided by companies such as the Post Office, and will involve individuals proving who they say they are by providing information such as their passport number, address, or the last digits of their bank account or mobile phone. Utility account numbers can also be used.

This information is then cross-checked against existing records held by the Government and private-sector credit-rating agencies to verify their identity. Once this is done, the person will set their own user name and password and provide answers to security questions.

The useful bit is that once you have set up your free account you will never have to do so again – and will be able to access any Government service from anywhere in the world simply by logging in.

The idea is that, once this is established, other private-sector organisations such as banks are likely to use the same systems to verify their customers’ identity. So, for example, you may in the future be able to switch bank accounts online rather than in person; apply for a loan; or buy age-restricted items in online stores such as Amazon.

Although at this stage the NHS will not be included, if the project is successful it will not be long before you’ll be able to read your medical records or consult a doctor online.

Such a change obviously carries risks. While theoretically it should make access to our personal data more secure, any loss or theft of that information would have more profound consequences.

But whether we like it or not, more and more things we need to do in life are going to be done online – and it has to make sense for the Government to get involved in setting standards and regulating what is so far an unregulated market. Besides, all the information that we provide to verify our identity is already held in different forms on computer servers across the country  and beyond.

Interestingly, the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude claims that such identity verification will be the final nail in the coffin of the need for a national identity card.

But here the argument in favour is less robust. Although the scheme is voluntary, if it is successful it may, in a few years’ time, be impossible to operate a “digital life” without it.

If that’s the case, we’ll simply have created a digital national identity card by default.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page


Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride