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When You’ve Got to Go

'It is truly regrettable that a person will treat a man who is valuable to him well, and a man who is worthless to him poorly. One should have insight into this world of dreams that passes in the twinkling of an eye'.
Hojo Shigetoki 1198-1261

It’s time for the e-Envoy to go and I’ll start this thought with a quote from a speech I delivered at Westminster in October of last year:

“Without a solution in place, the continued absence of a universal architecture of trust, in conjunction with very real risk of expensive failure, threatens the credibility of the government’s programme and with it, any hope of building a true knowledge economy at a time of threatening recession. Its action that is needed, not excuses. We’re either an online society or we're not and without an architecture of trust and a readily available authentication capability more elaborate than a simple password or PIN number, we are most definitely not in danger of becoming the first world knowledge economy that I imagined two years ago”.

I am of course referring to the unholy mess that surrounded government’s plans for digital certificates and PKI and one government-related publication commented, only this month:

“Although PKI (public key infrastructure) and digital certificate technology has played a major role in leading projects such as the Government Gateway, there is now growing recognition that it is unsuited for wider public use”

In fact and from my own direct experience, government has known, for at least a year that their PKI strategy wasn’t going to work and as far back as November of 2001, in my role of ‘advisor’, I passed on the concerns of local government in a memo to the Cabinet Office and the e-Envoy. “All fur coat and no knickers” was one of the comments.

This month, one official is quoted as saying, “"Trust and authentication has been a huge problem for us. We haven't got a solution for authentication. We've been trying with PKI for about 10 years now and its not working because it's a pain to implement and to use. We've been looking to take the pain out of PKI.”

But it’s the next quote that I find really interesting:

What we are saying with authentication is that if another trusted organisation such as a bank can provide proof saying you are who you say you are that should take the need away for digital certificates."

This isn’t a startling revelation and its hardly a “radical way" of solving the authentication problem. in fact it’s been on the table for at least a year, through conversations with APACS, Identrus, Quizid et al. It’s just that the government have taken this long to accept the inevitable, that someone else, through a public – private partnership, can rescue them from the hole that they’ve fallen into.

So, the good news is that government appears to be out of ‘denial’ where its PKI strategy is concerned although I doubt very much that anyone is going to stand-up and take responsibility.

In my speech to MPs and others last year, I noted:

A well-meaning and at first glance, sensible decision towards self regulation, has instead resulted in inertia and a multi-vendor race which no single interest seems capable of winning. It makes any prospect of mass-market authentication a convoluted, expensive, multiple standards affair, involving different certificate authorities, a government that only accepts certificates from selected companies and a level of tiresome bureaucracy at each end of the process. What should have been simple and cheap has now become endlessly complicated, prohibitively expensive and stands in the way of both progress and the political agenda. Competition, instead of offering a commercial solution has given us deadlock”.

Three years ago, I was asked if I was going to put myself forward as a candidate e-Envoy to replace Alex Allan. Very sensibly I declined, firstly because I’m not politically correct enough and secondly because I could see how the role would always find itself acting as publicist for No10 through the ‘eCommunications’ Directorate. Today, I believe enough avoidable mistakes have been made with taxpayers money to merit a change of scenery at the top and I’d call for a referendum but I’ll doubt we’ll get one.


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