Government to review e-Cert service, which still struggles 16 years after launch

IT experts say more user-friendly alternatives available, and service should focus on B2B applications instead of B2C

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 4:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 10:05pm

The government is planning to review development and usage of digital certificates – also known as e-Cert – to find ways of boosting demand after results have been lacklustre since introducing the service in 2000.

An e-Cert is a digital certificate issued by a certification authority which verifies a user’s identity during authentication of electronic transactions.

With the rapid development of e-commerce in the late 1990s, the service, developed jointly by the government, Hewlett-Packard, and GTE Cybertrust, was rolled out to much fanfare. The government believed that establishing such services would lead to Hong Kong developing its own high-profile Internet companies, such as Amazon and Yahoo.

It was also assumed users would feel secure in conducting electronic transactions with the use of e-Cert, especially when the e-commerce industry was in its nascent stages. However, technology establishing secure transactions, without the need for third-party identity verification, developed quickly, making consumer-to-business use of e-Cert nearly obsolete.

Currently, only 32 out of 730 e-government services require e-Certs for user authentification or digital signing, according to a spokesman for the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer.

The spokesman conceded that utilisation of digital certificates and the e-Cert service was “on the low side”.

Incumbent IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok, who had launched his re-election bid for next month’s Legislative Council polls, said: “[E-Cert] has never been a success from day one. [The government] got it all wrong. It was so inconvenient.”

“I said it nearly 20 years ago that people use e-commerce because it’s cheap; because it’s convenient, not because it’s safe. This is what Amazon proved to us 20 years ago when they first started selling books, and Taobao 10 years later.”

Mok said the service was too cumbersome and not user friendly, adding to the government’s woes of getting the technology adopted by the masses.

[E-Cert] has never been a success from day one. [The government] got it all wrong. It was so inconvenient
Charles Mok, IT sector lawmaker

“The government has never been able to foster the development of applications or websites ... that requires e-Cert, so why [would anyone] want to get it?” Mok said.

The government had pumped in HK$55 million to develop the e-Cert programme.

In a bid to boost e-Cert usage and achieve a “critical mass” of users, e-Certs were embedded into smart Hong Kong ID cards in 2003. Users were enticed with a one-year free trial.

But by March 2007, e-Cert operations had recorded an accumulated loss of HK$195.2 million. It was originally forecast that the service would break even one year after launch, and go on to make an accumulated profit of HK$321 million by 2004. In 2006, the service was contracted out to E-Mice Solutions (HK), following six years of losses.

In 2015, E-Mice was dissolved.

IT security expert Ricci Ieong said he did not think e-Cert and third-party approved digital certificates had a bright future, as other technologies that provide the same level of strong authentication are available.

“This includes, hardware tokens, smart cards, and biometrics, such as fingerprint for authentication. Their level of security are more or less the same,” he said.

David Mahdi, research director of information technology research company Gartner, said in order to maximise usage of government-enabled services that require e-Certs, the government must now plan to leverage as many consumer devices as possible, with a strong focus on mobile devices.

“In order for Hong Kong to truly enable a digital economy, [it must] establish trust online. All this must be done with the minimal amount of steps for users to complete, and with the notion of mobility in mind,” he said.

Mok believes the service would have better usage as a business-to-business service, rather than a consumer-to-business service, and the government should focus its efforts there.

The government spokesman was optimistic that e-Cert services will get a boost, as e-cheque services, introduced by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and participating banks, increase in usage.