Monday, August 23, 2010

Is Facebook suitable for govt transactions?

Last week, an airline in the United States became the first company to allow customers to book directly through its Facebook page. Will citizens soon be able to transact directly with government on social media? In interviews with FutureGov, officials in Indonesia, Australia and Singapore say that despite data security concerns, some government transactions on Facebook or Twitter will very soon be possible.

Delta Airlines launched a “Ticket Window” on Facebook that enables travelers to reserve flights directly without leaving the site. To date, airlines and other businesses have only used social media for promotional purposes.

Some government entities already use Facebook to allow direct transactions - although for relatively non-sensitive business. The National Library Board of Singapore uses the Facebook appliation NLB myLibrary that can be automatically linked to a patron’s library account. The app pulls up borrowed books and due dates. However, the app does not allow books to be renewed or fines paid. “Patrons must go to the official library web sites and login separately,” a Singaporean official explained.

However, social networks will soon be able to support more revenue-based government transactions such as tax or business registration, thinks Heru Sutadi (pictured), Commissioner of the Indonesian Regulatory Authority (BRTI). “In the near future, we will use social media for more than chatting, status updates and sharing photos,” he said. But a number of issues need to addressed first, not least data security, he added.

“It will be some time before this is possible,” said Sutadi. “Besides data security, which is a big concern in Indonesia, our systems and processes for online transactions would require re-engineering for social media. For business transactions, such as paying tax, citizens can send a tax form by email and pay their taxes online using a government web site, which is highly secure.”

Sutadi pointed out that while the Delta Ticket Window allows users to search and book flights without leaving the Facebook page, the information collected is not stored by Facebook, which may allay security concerns. “Facebook has provided a platform on which Delta customers can transact with the airline’s web site, but Facebook does not host passenger data.”

Making Facebook secure enough for government transactions shouldn’t be too difficult, the Singapore official (who wanted to remain anonymous) added. “The necessary security is technically possible, and not too different from embedding credit card approvals into existing web sites. It’s more a matter of people getting used to it, and Facebook not accidentally creating backdoors due to poor engineering.”

As with any platform on which citizens do business with government, the issue boils down to trust, he said. “And once trust is lost, it’s very difficult to regain.”

Anthony O’Hara is the Chief Information Officer at Australia’s Department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor. Does he think Australians will soon be able to apply for a gambling or drinks licence on Facebook?

“In the future, I think this type of scenario will be open for government,” he predicted. “However, I think examples will be focused upon building communities of interest and facilitating consultation efforts on topics of community concern. That in itself will be a big first step for most government agencies.”

“Performing transactions, where some sort of integration at the data level occurs with any social networking site, is then a very, very big leap of faith,” he cautioned. “Government has to set and meet the highest possible standards in relation to privacy and security concerns. We may, of course, fall short but we are held accountable.”

Initiating a transaction where authentication was under the control of the government agency and where there is no reliance on the operator’s information is a more likely scenario, O’Hara concluded. “In the end I think it is down to government to facilitate open and trusted mechanisms that will enable constituents to transact with agencies with confidence. Identity and authentication are key.”[]

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