The Facebook Identity Fallacy / Fiasco

The Cabinet Office is getting a lot of press regarding new plans to allow social network sites to act as the identity brokers for government services.  The Guardian, for instance, says:

Under the Cabinet Office scheme people wanting to apply for services ranging from benefits and tax credits to passports will be able to access them using their logins for websites such as Twitter and Facebook.

they have logged on via computer or mobile phone, the social networking
site will send an email confirming their identity to the relevant
government agency, the Cabinet Office said.

It’s all so bizarre I don’t even know where to start.  But here are a couple of points at least:

  • Facebook and Twitter have no idea who I am.  They may not even know my real name.  They certainly don’t know where I live.  And they have no idea of my connection with any government services.  At best, they know the name I’ve registered with and whatever email address I used.  I don’t think government wants to get to the place where it somehow allows a bunch of friends (none of whom it knows are who they say they are anyway) to vouch for me as a good chap and deserving of benefits
  • The DWP identity procurement, which notified successful suppliers this week, expected to spend £25m (external costs, not including any DWP costs) over 18 months to manage identities from somewhere between 4 and 12 suppliers.  It seems unlikely that they will be handing that money over to Facebook and Twitter.  And even less likely that HMG will accept an email from them that says “This is Alan Mather, he’s ok, give him the benefits he needs”.

That said, I see nothing wrong with using Facebook and Twitter logins as the seed for an identity – it’s just that you need an awful lot more data from a wide range of sources to verify that you are who you say you are.   And that’s before we get into what happens if your Facebook or Twitter password is compromised – I’ve lost count of the number of spam DMs I’ve received from people in that situation.

Identity is very complicated and whilst there are some simple steps to be taken, GDS needs to get a far, far better handle on what it is telling the media lest the wrong expectations are set.  Ooops, too late, they already have.

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