The goodness of open government

The government wants to provide services online. This is a good thing. Before you use a service the government wants to be able to identify you. This is a good thing.

The government wants to provide services online. This is a good thing. Before you use a service the government wants to be able to identify you. This is a good thing.

The government is asking us, the public, our opinions on how it should do this rather than just imposing rules on us. This is a good thing too.

The government has never been so open before about new laws and processes. It wants public consultation and criticism because, it says, it's too important to get wrong. Talking like this to the public about the detailed technical implementation of policy is a new thing, and it's a good thing.

Another good thing is that it has thought about the technical issues, and has come up with four possible technical architectures.

However, the actual details of the government-to-citizen authorisation facilities being discussed are a bit worrying. That they’re considered important and worrying by the government is witnessed in the consultative model being used.

To implement this system it is possible that laws will have to be passed that alter our relationship with the government, and our privacy. If this goes wrong then our freedom may adversely be affected.

The problem I have, I suppose, is that there is little mention of this in the consultation document or on the website. It’s all tied up in technical architectures and discussions about implementation models. I’d prefer to see more about the legal and moral issues up front, rather than have to infer them from the rest of the material.

It might also be considered a bit odd that the government is asking the general public deeply technical questions. The web-based survey only had 45 responses a week before the consultation period closed last week, so perhaps the technical nature of the questions frightened most people away.

Said security specialist Ron Segal: "I am cynical about this being a political project, more concerned with image than reality, particularly as the government seems to have overlooked the first step of engaging seriously in secure electronic transactions with business."

It is a lot easier to engage securely with businesses than with humans; for a start there are a lot fewer businesses than there are people, and government can order businesses around. They can’t do that with people.

Segal believes the consultation questionnaire is partially an abdication of responsibility; that asking people which is more important, speed or security, is akin to asking them what asphalting process to use on the roads. The general public is poorly equipped to answer such questions (most technical people are poorly equipped to answer them, for that matter). The government should find out if people really want G2C (government to citizen) transactions before asking what type of security they want.

I wouldn’t sign up for a G2C service without knowing the answers to some questions. Some of these are questions on the survey, some of them aren’t. Who is responsible if a password is compromised and is misused? Is it my fault if government servers are hacked? Is it my fault if I’m not sophisticated enough to concoct a hard password? Is it my fault if I have trouble remembering a password, write it down and then lose it? Is it my fault if the trash-man finds the username/password letter in my trash? Is it my fault if I tell Windows to remember my password, take my computer in to get repaired, and someone uses it to access government services?

I’m happy to use a user name/password for internet banking, because the bank takes all the responsibility. I can just phone them, tell them which transactions aren’t mine, and they’ll not only refund the money but also apologise for the inconvenience.

Then there’s the Microsoft question. I’m very nervous about the government storing any information about me on systems from a company which openly admits to invading customer privacy. I want to keep the information it holds about me to a minimum, and the information it does have I want contained, not distributed to any agency that feels like having it. Right now there is a small chance that my IRD information is still private, but if information sharing becomes the norm then all it takes is a single security breach anywhere in government and all systems become compromised.

The government runs an insecure house, and I want as little as my information as possible on its systems. I don’t trust it, and I don’t trust the closed-source software it uses. I want hundreds of developers around the world to read the source code for these systems and declare them free of trojans and other malicious code.

Basically, I will not enter into electronic transactions with the government until it stops using proprietary software -- the risks are too high -- and I urge all of you to do the same.

Dollery is a partner at GreenPulse in Wellington. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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