A LIFE ONLINE How does RealMe® work?

To register, people will need to visit a PostShop, where they will be digitally photographed, and their identity will be checked against passport records. They will need to re-enrol every five years.

Banks, telcos and other utilities could use RealMe logons, passwords and the two-factor authentication codes that will be texted to mobiles to control access to services such as internet banking and email accounts. Consumers would need to remember only one set of credentials.

WHAT ARE THE SAFEGUARDS? Users have to consent before the system will provide their identity information to an organisation. Organisations have to provide an alternative means of establishing identity.

There are significant restrictions on how a person's RealMe usage history can be accessed.

THE RANGE of services New Zealanders can access online is set to expand dramatically with the launch of a new Government- backed identity verification scheme that could let people get a mortgage and exchange contracts on properties without ever leaving their couch.

The RealMe service is due to be rolled out to businesses like banks next month and proponents say the benefits for consumers could be huge.

The Government is also investigating initiatives like allowing travellers to fill out departure cards online before leaving the country.

The service builds on the iGovt identity verification service, which aims to let users log into a range of government websites with a single username and password. From July, businesses will be able to sign up, and users will prove their identity using the same user name and password.

The advantage for users is the high level of security - a code will be texted to their mobile phone every time their RealMe identity is used. The advantage to businesses like banks is that it provides a higher level of identity verification than is currently available because of the hook up with the government.

NZ Post agency services head Mandy Smith said RealMe would give people control of their identity in the digital environment.

As marketing agency for the service, NZ Post has been talking to businesses about signing up.

Anti-money-laundering legislation requiring much more stringent identity checks by banks was the driver for them getting on board, Smith said.

While banks were the first to be approved, others NZ Post had been talking to included utility companies and local government, where there was potential for things like resource and planning consents to be done online, Smith said.

Ultimately, any businesses that passed government checks could come on board and it would help them operate in an increasingly digital environment.

“There is that customer preference for digital transactions especially with the advancement around mobile devices. People don't want to get off the couch at home to go in and do transactions in person but how do you enable that where that trust [in identity] is required?“

There was huge potential for banks to be able to carry out higher-value transactions online including mortgage applications - “that's our absolute vision to be able to do that“.

Apart from the added security, a big advantage was the potential for a high strength logon that could be used in many places.

“One user name and password is a big driver for within government . . . having something that can be used across multiple applications gives a real benefit to the consumer. And it's also a benefit to the organisation because they're not having to deal with password resets all the time. Or customer frustration that they've forgotten the password.“

The Government has pressed ahead with the scheme despite a series of privacy breaches that have shaken confidence in the security of information held online.

A series of reports into privacy breaches at ACC and the Ministry of Social Development have been highly critical of processes for protecting information.

Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff said the difficulty establishing identity online was a widely recognised barrier to providing online services.

But she acknowledged that RealMe would not succeed unless it could build and maintain the trust of New Zealanders. People would need to feel they were in control of their information, and confident it was protected.

The legislation behind RealMe also included a number of safeguards.

“Because the system can identify people with surety in any situation in which it's used, it's potentially powerful,“ she said. “There will be a need to ensure it isn't misused or its scope isn't inappropriately widened over time. We will be watching closely to ensure that the privacy safeguards for RealMe remain robust.“

Information and Communications Technology Minister Chris Tremain acknowledged the privacy concerns and said the Government had acted on the lessons learned.

Tracy Watkins, SundayStarTimes