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Friday, 7 June, 2002, 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK
The problem with e-government
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
Computer consultant Bill Thompson outlines the challenges facing governments trying to offer services over the internet, in his weekly column.

If we are all going to fall in with the UK Government's plans and start using the increasing number of official websites to do things like book a driving test, apply for a passport or pay for a TV licence then what is on offer needs be extremely well thought out.

It is no good just throwing together an online form or two, calling it an e-government portal and hoping that everyone will flock to use it.

There are serious barriers to overcome if we are going to embrace the new "government to citizen" services that will save money, improve performance and give us all a better relationship with government at local and national level.

The services need to be sophisticated enough to deal with complicated transactions. Forms like tax returns are complex because taxation is hard to figure out, not because the chancellor is vindictive and likes to make us struggle with our calculators.

Security breach

New net users may find it difficult to use the sites because they don't know where to look for help or advice, or because the services themselves assume a lot of computer confidence.

And old-time net users like me may be sceptical about how efficient, secure and reliable they can be, or dubious about the advertised advantages and effectiveness of notifying everyone of your change of address online.


It's a shame that the Inland Revenue, which has led the way in using the net to let us do things, should be the one to fall foul of a security failure

One of the worst things that can happen, though, is a major breach of security in a key service.

Just when people were starting to trust the government with their private personal data, the news that the Inland Revenue had suspended a major part of its online self-assessment service because it was not secure sent shivers down the spine of anyone who thinks that online government is a good idea.

The problem has affected very few people, but it has worried a lot more. There are several ways to send in your tax return electronically, and one is to use the revenue's own software, SA Online.

Unfortunately some people using it last month found that they could see other people's tax returns when they were online - something that is obviously not supposed to happen.

It's a shame that the Inland Revenue, which has led the way in using the net to let us do things instead of just find out information about government activity, should be the one to fall foul of a security failure.

What went wrong?

It withdrew the service once it was told about this and, to its credit, it has not tried to hide the problem or pretended it didn't exist.

The Inland Revenue is still working out what went wrong and how to fix it, and the other parts of its service are still running and seem to be secure. At the moment it thinks that the problems were not caused by the SA Online software itself or by its internal systems.

Tax returns can be filled in online
Back to pen and paper for tax returns
There are rumours that only customers of one internet service provider had experienced the problem, indicating that it could be something to do with the way that this particular ISP had set up its network.

The obvious suspicion is that the ISP concerned was storing - or "caching" - pages that its customers had accessed so that it could send local copies of those same pages to other customers if they asked for them, speeding up its web access.

Unfortunately, if I had just viewed my own tax return and it was stored in the cache then it could in theory be sent to someone else who was trying to see their tax return instead.

Complicated network

Allocating blame like this is to miss the point. The internet is phenomenally complicated, as anyone who has talked to a technical support phone line while trying to sort out a problem with their e-mail will testify.

The number of separate organisations, networks and programs which have to work together seamlessly in order to allow you to sit at home at 3 o'clock in the morning and fill in your tax return is frighteningly large.


The internet can only work and can only deliver the benefits it has promised if all the people and companies involved work together

Apart from the manufacturer of your PC and its operating system, you have got your network access software, your anti-virus software, your web browser and the tax software itself.

Then there is the network, sending data through several different computers to make the link between you and the revenue. I have just checked and there are at least 15 computers sitting between me and the Inland Revenue website, and any information I send has to go through all of them.

Finally, there are the computers and the software running on them.

It is surprising that the net works at all, and doubly surprising that it goes wrong so rarely. But our expectations are high, and they need to be.

Co-operation not secrecy

Many of the serious security problems discovered in today's network software only become apparent when different systems start working together, but the secrecy which most companies insist on means that it is often impossible to know in advance that this will happen.


The net was built on co-operation and openness

Giving everyone a chance to see program code is one way of improving this.

The open source movement is campaigning hard to persuade even the largest software companies, like Microsoft, to open up their programs and let everyone look for errors or security problems.

But it's only part of the solution. The Inland Revenue's security problem highlights clearly that the internet can only work and can only deliver the benefits it has promised if all the people and companies involved work together.

The net was built on co-operation and openness, and the technical standards that make it work - the TCP/IP standard - came about because large numbers of people worked hard to build something that was available to everyone.

When an ISP decides to manage its network in a certain way it has implications for everyone - the Inland Revenue seems to have fallen foul of a feature that it did not have any control over and could not anticipate.


The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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See also:

30 May 02 | Business
21 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
03 May 02 | Science/Nature
20 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
02 Feb 01 | Science/Nature
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