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No Thought of Gattica

As 2002 moves towards its festive close, I've been asked to gaze, once again, into my crystal ball for the coming year. This week then, in my last three columns before Christmas, I'll try and make some predictions about the industry. In a year's time, you can look back and laugh at how far off-target I was.

Let's start with government. Not the continuing saga of Carole Caplin, the conman and No10, but rather with the progress of e-government towards its 2005 goal of universal everything.

Britain may be ranked second in the world as an e-economy, according to a recent report that focused on the G7 economies plus Australia and Sweden. However, there are small Middle Eastern states that you can find on www.arabgov.com that are streets ahead of the larger economies with many of their online projects.

Of course, they have certain advantages. They have tiny populations, lots of money and no emotional objections to the idea of every citizen carrying an ID card of some kind.

And there's the rub. Identity remains the key to the development of a successful knowledge economy because of its powerful joining-up effect. The UK government will either have to produce a universal identity card or face being left behind, very quickly, by other nations.

Contrary to popular belief, a digital identity card or entitlement card doesn't have to carry behind it information on a person's criminal record or sexual preference. Like a bank card or a passport, it has to support your claim to being yourself for the purpose of a single transaction or series of linked transactions between agencies.

The government is doing a great deal of work exploring SmartCard and Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) options. But this coming year, more than halfway into the prime minister's joined-up government by 2005 agenda, some decision will need to be made or larger pilot project will need to start towards the goal of giving each one of us a digital identity which might, in turn, save some of the £10bn lost in identity fraud each year.

Having spoken with a great many people, including the e-envoy, on the subject and with the battle against illegal immigration "lost", in the words of a Foreign Office friend of mine, I don't believe that the great British public would seriously object to the introduction of an ID card of sorts. But here's the catch.

The UK government is, apparently, trusted less by its own citizens than any of 12 countries featured in a recent survey. This is, after all, the government that tried to force through its "Big Brother" Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (RIP).

If government attempts to issue "entitlement cards" or ID cards, then the rest of us will, rightly, be suspicious of its motives. Better perhaps for the government to encourage the banks to issue strong identification as part of the fight against fraud and then for government to cross-certify against your "customer ID" at the building society or some other institution.

It's an idea that removes the hidden threat of a citizen database and goes a long way towards protecting transactional anonymity, which is what most of us would want.

So, my first prediction has government moving quickly towards a technical and political solution to the digital ID problem.

I suspect, that with the working parties already in place, we may have some kind of digital credential scheme in limited circulation before Christmas 2003.

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