The White House is establishing a new office to work with industry to develop an online “identity ecosystem” in which consumers and businesses can transact securely and privately without the need for passwords.  U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt recently announced plans to create the new “National Program Office,” which will be housed within the Department of Commerce.  The new office’s goals will be to support the creation of privately-implemented identity standards in collaboration with industry and the public. 

According to the announcement, the Administration envisions that users could choose to use login credentials from competing private providers and select a level of disclosure appropriate for a particular transaction.  For instance, a user could, employing the same credential provider, choose a pseudonym to write a blog comment but reveal key identity-verifying information to her medical care provider.  Contrary to some overheated headlines, Secretary Locke took pains to emphasize that the plan will not create a single “national ID,” nor will participation be mandatory. 

The new National Program Office will be in charge of implementing the forthcoming National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), which will detail the Obama Administration’s plan.  (A draft [PDF] of the NSTIC was released in June 2010.)  In the upcoming months, the Commerce Department will release the final version of the NSTIC and host a conference on the topic.

The “identity ecosystem” has the potential to eliminate the need for website-specific passwords online, facilitating new forms of interaction and shifting responsibilities and roles in data storage.  Social networking, advertising, online health and financial services, and user-generated content may especially be affected.  However, the proposal also implicates issues of privacy, cybersecurity, and civil liberties, and some early reactions have questioned whether it is appropriate for the government, as distinguished from private industry, to have a significant role in establishing uniform online identities.  Apparently to address that criticism, the Administration has signaled that it is eager for suggestions from industry in developing rules to shape the identity ecosystem.  As the National Program Office begins to offer opportunities for input, businesses should consider accepting the invitation.