Britain's banks are still deeply divided over offering a free service already used by millions around the world. Called account aggregation, it allows consumers to view, on one web page, information from their online accounts with banks, building societies, credit cards, frequent flyer accounts and online retailing and stockbroking.
This way, individuals can get a picture of their entire financial position without having to log in separately to all their financial service suppliers. The pollster Mori found three-quarters of online UK bank account customers would use the service if it was available.
The idea started in the United States in 1999 and has spread to more than 20 countries. It was launched in the UK more than a year ago by the American Citibank, with its My Accounts service. That was greeted with an outcry by British banks publicly fearful for the threat to customers' security and privately determined to prevent the American intruder from snaffling their customers.
Others, notably the Prudential's Egg online bank, were keen to join but were held up by their rivals through the mechanism of the Association for Payment Clearing Services (Apacs), to which all main banks belong.
Several schemes were put on hold while Apacs set up a working party which this year produced guidelines clearly the result of a huge compromise. They set out rules for best practice, but they warn that account aggregation "has undoubted benefits for the consumer, but exposes them to potential risks. In particular, by combining access to all of a consumer's financial accounts, consequences of a security breach are significantly heightened".
Despite that, Egg went ahead in May and now claims 100,000 people registered for its Money Manager service, of whom 90,000 have signed up since a promotional push in August. Many have accounts with the big banks, which is making those banks look more closely at this embryonic market. Once someone has gone to the trouble of loading all their bank and other financial details on one of these services they will be reluctant to move, giving the pioneers a big advantage.
That is why HSBC's First Direct and Abbey National's Cahoot online banks are preparing to enter account aggregation early next year. Lloyds TSB and Barclays are studying developments and all are expected to join eventually. The conversion of Abbey National to the cause is particularly significant, because it was among the vocal opponents a year ago.
Then, Ambrose McGinn, Abbey's retail e-commerce and strategic development director, said: "We will be making it clear to customers in the strongest way that they will be invalidating their terms and conditions [if they pass their PIN number to an account aggregator]. Customers will put themselves at huge risk by taking part in such services."
Now Tim Sawyer, Cahoot's marketing director, says: "We were not concerned about account aggregation per se, but whether people had thought through the security issues. The last thing you want is a major internet banking scandal. But we are more relaxed because there have not been major problems in the past year."
There are two main types of aggregation service. When Citibank arrived last year it imported the system it had developed in the US, which involves using your passwords to "scrape" your account information from other providers, then relaying it to you. This intrusion caused the greatest upset, not that Citibank would do anything untoward, but aggregation being unregulated, anyone could, in theory, offer it and use the data unscrupulously.
That gave rise to an alternative approach, which Egg has adopted. All data, passwords and pin numbers are held on the customer's PC, on to which the software must be downloaded. The aggregation is conducted by the customer with software supplied by the service provider, whose only continuing involvement is to hold the encryption key that lets the customer into the system. …