U.K. official: Fight online fraud with iPods

Agency tech head says it'd be cheaper to give each citizen an iPod for authentication than to issue ID cards.

A senior manager at a British government agency has come up with an alternative to the U.K.'s identity card scheme: Give everyone a free iPod installed with a digital certificate.

Patrick Cooper, the head of applications and data services in the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry, floated the idea--albeit with tongue firmly in cheek--at an event on Tuesday, hosted by Adobe Systems, to discuss technology predictions for 2006.

Cooper said that two of the main issues facing the IT industry are network authentication and security, particularly when using government services online. He claimed that the ubiquity of asymetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) networks has come at the price of security risks. The integrated services digital network (ISDN) standard is an inherently more secure medium than ADSL, but is too expensive to meet the needs of most consumers or small businesses, he said.

But a cell phone or an iPod equipped with a digital signature or digital certificate that consumers or business users plugged into their home machines would be an efficient way to solve online authentication and identity management problems, Cooper argued.

"If you had a mobile phone with a digital certificate, you could dock it into your PC. An iPod with a digital certificate would also work," Cooper said. "My boss would give everyone in the U.K. an iPod. That would also mean there would be no reason for anyone to steal one, because everyone would have one."

Cooper quipped that the iPod scheme would also be a more cost-efficient alternative to other government plans to combat online fraud, such as equipping the proposed National ID Card with a PIN or password system to enable it to work as an online authentication device.

The U.K. government has been facing mounting pressure to combat online fraud after it emerged in December last year that its tax credit Web site had been hit by more than 30 million pounds, or about $52 million, in fraudulent claims.

The cost of issuing an ID card to every British citizen could rise to almost 500 pounds (about $884) per person, due to the cost of integrating the IT infrastructure with other government departments and public sector bodies, according to recent data from the London School of Economics.

"It (an iPod with a digital certificate) would be cheaper than the ID Card scheme," Cooper said.

To give everyone in the U.K. an iPod Nano could work out at roughly 139 pounds, or about $245, each, even before factoring in the kind of discount that Apple Computer might offer for a bulk purchase of 60 million units.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London. Andy McCue of Silicon.com contributed to this report from London.

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