Government U-turns do IT managers no favours

Government U-turns do IT managers no favours

Efforts to improve identity management and curb IT crime are being hindered by government vacillation

The government’s recent about-turn on identity cards gave its opponents a great opportunity for twisting the knife.

Earlier this month, home secretary Jacqui Smith announced that the full-scale rollout of ID cards would not be completed until 2017, before which time a mix of compulsory and voluntary schemes aimed at non-EU nationals, airport workers and students would be introduced. Smith also revealed that contrary to previous plans, the National Identity Register would not store all sensitive information on a central database because of security concerns.

The move will no doubt be welcomed as a victory by those groups and individuals who objected to the cards for monetary or privacy reasons. However, for the IT industry it could have less happy consequences. For those vendors previously interested in bidding as technology suppliers for an imminent multi-billion pound scheme to supply the entire nation with ID cards, and develop and maintain a secure centralised database, involvement in the watered-down plans could prove a less attractive prospect. I’m sure others will soon join BAE, Steria and Accenture in announcing their withdrawal from the bidding contest due to concerns over further potential amendments, and the prospect of a lower price tag.

The changes will also dampen the plans of organisations considering using the national scheme as a basis for their own identity systems. Much was made of the potential for firms to use ID cards as an authentication tool for their own customers, but the staggered rollout means that firms would be wiser ploughing on with their own access control systems, rather than waiting on the national scheme.

In the same week that the home secretary unveiled a change of heart over ID cards, we were also given more details of another government U-turn, this time over tackling computer crime.

Back in April 2001, then home secretary Jack Straw launched the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), a law enforcement body set up to crack down on the growing problem of computer crime, co-ordinate efforts with other police agencies, and offer UK companies and citizens a direct point of contact for reporting incidents.

Fast forward five years to April 2006 and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) was launched. As part of its introduction, the NHTCU was disbanded and responsibility for co-ordinating the UK’s online crime-fighting efforts was handed back to local police forces.

Moving ahead to April 2008, and the slated launch of the web site of the Police Central E-crime Unit (PCEU), a new body being set up to tackle computer crime. The PCEU’s remit includes co-ordinating the computer crime efforts of national police forces, training crime prevention officers in IT security, and providing a single point of contact for businesses and the public. Sound familiar?

The motives for closing down the original NHTCU were given as improving the fight against crime by linking the efforts of various agencies to enhance information sharing. But reduced spending was no doubt a welcome knock-on effect, as the government no longer had to fund a specialist IT crime unit and could instead dish out responsibility among various other bodies.

If the government added the cost of the consultation work carried out so far for the ever-changing ID cards project to the cost of setting up the PCEU ­ a new NHTCU under different branding ­ I’m sure it would come up with a figure large enough to have funded a specialist IT crime unit over the past few years and well into the future.

If only that kind of logic could be applied to politics.