Knowing Me – Knowing You

Should we carry a personal identity card? It’s a question that provokes strong feelings in our own society, particularly among those concerned over what they view as the growth of the ‘Big Brother’ govrnment and the decline of personal freedom. In reality, the issue is all about trust. Trusting our government or any government not to abuse a personal identity card scheme, through the uncontrolled and unrestricted joining-up of personal information between different agencies.

Authentication, is of course a pillar of government and has been since the beginning of history Today authentication is also the foundation principle of a wired society. Without strong authentication, knowing that you are, who you say you are, the development of a successful eGovernment programme becomes far more difficult.
I’m writing this somewhere over the Saudi Arabian desert, having just completed an eGovernment fact-finding visit to Kuwait. To be perfectly honest, you might not normally associate the Middle-east with the leading edge of eGovernment development but Kuwait, with only two and a half million people, is implementing projects that we in the UK can learn from.

Kuwaiti citizens, I’m told, generally trust their government, a remarkable thought by European standards. Furthermore, every Kuwaiti has a personal identification number from birth and a photo ID card beyond the age of nine. Around this one identity card and a secondary PIN number, a complete joined-up government system is being developed, which embraces, schools, hospitals, universities, the entire public sector.

If you happen to be a Kuwaiti who has recently left university and wish to apply for a career in the civil service, then the application process is mouse-driven. With remarkable simplicity, a human resources portal, allows you to type in your civil ID number to kick-start a very simple process. The portal conjures up an XML form which immediately cross-references your qualifications from your school or university and your address and a scanned photo from the interior ministry. You may add other details, such previous work experience as being married or not and your contact details and preference for email or SMS. Much like a dating agency, the system then matches your experience to any available vacancies and will inform you by email or SMS of which department to visit and when, for an interview.

Coming soon for the Kuwaitis will be a link into private sector / job centre-type databases, using their ID for financial transactions and Internet banking and a cross-reference link into the police databank, if the nature of the work involved demands a vetting procedure on the part of an employer.
Is this an example of joined-up government in practise, a threat to personal privacy or a benefit to the population? The Minister told me that they no longer suffer from long queues in government departments and the same applies to hospitals, where any doctor has all the visiting patient case-history available on a terminal and can even track a prescription via a pharmacy, informing him where and when the medicine was dispensed to the patient, eliminating any chance of prescription fraud.

Maybe you need a new driving license or your license expires, the system sends you an SMS or an email message to remind you. You then complete the on-line form and receive a tracking number, telling you where to collect your new document and from which numbered dispensing machine in the Ministry. Input the tracking number and the new card appears.

Of course, there’s the darker side to the force of progress, which perhaps wouldn’t be so welcome here. Let’s say that on the way home, you run through a speed camera over the limit. Minutes later, depending on your recorded contact preference, a SMS message arrives telling you what the fine is and how to pay, either via a smartphone or over the Internet. Your license plate and personal ID information have been cross referenced to complete the transaction

I could go on of course but I think you have the idea. The Kuwaiti’s are re-thinking all their processes and radically thinning down the painful process of dealing with government by using reliable authentication, new technologies and the Web to join-up their different government departments.

Back in Britain, identity fraud is rife and if, like me, you watched a recent BBC documentary, then you saw that a false passport or a driving license or national insurance number appears to be commoditized and as freely available as revolver or a packet of smuggled cigarettes. In fact, it seems to be increasingly difficult for our own government to be entirely certain of who anyone is anymore.

For the Kuwaitis, being able to prove that you are, who you say you are, appears to bring real benefits in the shape of thinner government and the rapid evolution of useful, identity-based services. For many of them, government is becoming a useful part of life, rather than a demanding burden that one has to carry at regular intervals.
Just imagine a Britain, where you could easily apply for a parking permit over the Internet or in my own case, avoid the wasted time involved in visiting the local Post Office to get a new tax disk? Of course, this is close to our own vision for 100% egovernment delivery by 2005 but identity remains the missing part of the puzzle and is of course the key to real eGovernment interaction. Quite honestly, I’m quite happy to carry an identity card if it brings us closer to the level of service I have seen in Kuwait.
But one final thought worries me about identity and I said as much to my Kuwaiti hosts. What if the technology evolves to a point where each person’s ID is actually based on their unique genetic identity. This is the strongest possible means of authentication and it has occurred to some of the Kuwaitis I spoke with. What would this mean and how would such sensitive information be cross-references and used?

Are you worried by the identity argument or should we follow Kuwait’s example for an easier life? Let me know.


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