Headlines: December 15th, 1997

The launch of an electronic signature trial marks a breakthrough in linking customers to government. Verifying the identity of a customer giving information electronically has been a barrier to developing on line transactions, but that barrier may now be on the way down. The Government, in collaboration with EDS, Microsoft and NatWest are trialling an electronic signature.The trial is being carried out as part of the joint working by Inland Revenue, Contributions Agency and Customs and Excise. The group have created a one stop shop by devising a single electronic form for registering as self employed. Six branches of NatWest are operating the trial.

The newly self-employed in the vicinity of the trial sites have the choice of calling into the NatWest branch to see the business adviser, or asking the adviser to visit their premises. In either case the adviser will have a laptop computer with a smart card reader attachment. The adviser will call up the form on the Internet and complete it at the direction of the customer. A smartcard, which is specific to the NatWest branch will be swiped through the reader to authenticate the information provided. Submission of the form will register the person for tax, National Insurance and VAT and will then trigger all the action necessary by the three departments.

Tim Jones, Managing Director, Retail Banking Services, NatWest UK, said: “This initiative is a prime example of how new technology can be combined with personal service to make it easier and quicker for people to manage many of the essentials of their busy lives. As inventors of Mondex, the electronic cash on a card, NatWest is at the forefront of developing smartcard technologies. Electronic cards and digital signatures will be a key parts of our lives in future. We are firm believers that the ‘intelligent form’ trail signals the way ahead.”

Barclays are also working with the Central IT Unit in the Cabinet Office and Microsoft on a digital signature to enable self employed registration. This new smartcard, which will be available next year, will allow businesses to interact with government on-line. In the longer term it is likely that people and organisations will have their own smartcards which they will be able to use for a variety of purposes, including authenticating information they send to government.