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Updated 24 May 2016: The government identity assurance scheme GOV.UK Verify has launched today. ComputerworldUK has all the information you'll need.

GOV.UK Verify is intended to provide a single trusted login across all Government Digital Services, verifying the user’s identity in 15 minutes.

In a speech last week, Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock said that amid the explosion of data, privacy and cyber security are “nothing without reliable verification of identity.”

The project is decentralised and the user can pick their ‘identity provider’, for example, Experian  – see below for our comprehensive guide. This, the government previously said, offers user choice and provides extra security.

Hancock also announced the Data Science Ethical Framework, a set of guidelines based on existing laws, designed to provide a reference point for using public data. The key takeaway is that the possible public benefits of data experiments must be balanced against any potential risks.

The idea behind the GOV.UK Verify scheme is deceptively simple: to give people one single, consistent way to prove their identity when accessing government services online.

The Government Digital Service hope it will become a single, shared platform used across government to verify a citizen’s identity: whether they are renewing their passport, paying their taxes or applying for benefits.

Its implementation has come in for criticism since it was set up in 2011 and its timetable has slipped repeatedly.

But before we get into that – what is it?

The concept

The idea behind GOV.UK Verify is to let people choose from a number of ‘identity providers’ – companies they already deal with, such as Experian – to handle initial registration when they sign into government services.

This provider checks the individual is who they say they are when they sign up (a process GDS says takes just 15 minutes), authenticates their identity, and, in theory, provides an easy way for them to log back in every time they sign onto a government service online.

The government has been keen to emphasise that GOV.UK Verify will not be ‘the only’ way to access its services – for example you can still phone, post forms or visit an office - however it is the main way to access them online.

The scheme was originally called ‘identity assurance’ but was rebranded to the snappier title ‘GOV.UK Verify’ last year.

Launch

The Cabinet Office started work on the project in 2011 then formally launched a procurement exercise in February 2012. The identity assurance service (now ‘GOV.UK Verify’) was initially intended to first be used as part of the benefits reform project Universal Credit.

As a result, the first procurement exercise was run by the Department for Work and Pensions rather than the Government Digital Service, which has overall responsibility for the scheme.

However the plan to launch GOV.UK Verify in step with Universal Credit was abandoned after problems with Universal Credit resulted in delays to implementation. The new benefit was originally due to launch nationally in October 2013 but it is now likely to take be at least 2020 before it is available to all claimants.

The GOV.UK Verify project is being set up using Agile development methods – so started with a ‘discovery’ phase, a private beta which launched in February 2014 before transferring to a public beta in October 2014. Gove.Uk Verify is now live.

Suppliers

During the original procurement in 2012, five suppliers won places on the framework: credit checkers Experian, Dutch identity management firm Digidentity, the Post Office, US telco giant Verizon and personal data store SME Mydex.

A second procurement in March 2015 saw a further five companies join the list: Royal Mail, banking giant Barclays, British identity management specialists GB Group, French security multinational Morpho and US-based payments firm PayPal.

Mydex was dropped with little explanation, leaving a total of nine suppliers.

The justification for using external suppliers rather than doing the work within government was to promote user choice and to avoid building a centralised identity database, according to the GOV.UK Verify team.

They say it is more secure to have multiple providers, helps to develop an ‘identity’ market’ for government and makes the most of the most modern private sector technology.

Criticisms

However, as is inevitable with any project involving the words ‘government’ or ‘identity’, GOV.UK Verify has come in for plenty of scrutiny - and criticism - since it was launched.

Detractors have questioned how secure and private individuals’ data will be, the wisdom of trying to offload risk of failure onto private providers, and whether government can be persuaded, cajoled or threatened to all share the same platform, among other concerns.

There have also been criticisms of take-up - one beta trial in January 2015 found almost 40 percent of people were unable to establish their identity using any of the providers on the list. GDS insists it 'can cover approximately 80 percent UK adult population now (up from about 65% at the start of our public beta), and we have plans to increase this to 90% by April 2016'.

It sparked fury among farmers in autumn 2014, many of whom found they were unable to certify their identity when they tried to log on to apply for EU Common Agricultural Policy payments.

The project has also been blamed by HM Revenue & Customs for problems people have experienced applying for marriage tax breaks and filing their tax returns online.

Services currently using GOV.UK Verify

As part of plans to gradually scale up the number of government services and individuals using GOV.UK Verify, it is currently being trialled across seven services in four departments, according to its official page. They are as follows:

  • View or share your driving licence information (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency)
  • Claim a tax refund (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs)
  • Claim for redundancy and monies owed (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)
  • Log in and file your Self Assessment tax return (HMRC)
  • Claim rural payments (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
  • Help friends or family with their tax (HMRC)
  • Check or update your company car tax (HMRC)

Plans for the future…

GOV.UK Verify is currently being tested ahead of the April 2016 deadline, when it is due to go live for about 30 government services, with others to join afterwards. But don’t be shocked if this deadline gets pushed back. It is unlikely to be launched before it’s ready and the timetable for implementation has slipped before.

Want to know more? Read the official GOV.UK Verify blog for regular updates and watch this video made by the team...

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