HK identity cards far from fulfilling their potential

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am

The rollout of Smartics is going smoothly, but the system has some way to go before it can be used to enable e-commerce

GOVERNMENTS AROUND the world have been considering smart ID cards for several years. A few governments in Asia, including Hong Kong's, are in the process of implementing them.

The Immigration Department started rolling out its Smart Identity Card System (Smartics) in June 2003 and expects to complete the process by 2007. The $3 billion system has created almost 3 million cards so far, and has won several awards for outstanding technology implementations along the way.

Dion Wiggins, vice-president and research director at Gartner Hong Kong, has been looking into smart cards for the past few years. He believes the time is about right for everything to come together to make the technology a success.

Initially, Mr Wiggins and the Gartner Group had serious reservations about how successful the project would be. The implementation leader was a business unit of PCCW with no background in smart card projects, and it appeared to the analysts that PCCW may have become involved in something it could not handle.

Now, however, Mr Wiggins believes the project is well on its way to success, even if there are areas that clearly could be improved. 'Although I was concerned in the early days, I must admit they have really delivered,' he said.

One example that demonstrates the job has been done properly is the manner in which the cards are made. Instead of opting for a cheap and easily forged solution, the PCCW unit went with laser engraving. If you look at a Hong Kong Smart ID Card, you will see that the print and the images have been etched in by laser under the surface instead of on top. This makes the card difficult to forge.

The laser-engraving procedure is more expensive, but other countries using traditional methods risk having forgeries run off on a home printer. The laser option pays off in the long run.

Other Asian nations that have jumped on the smart card bandwagon include Malaysia and Thailand. Malaysia's MyKad began inauspiciously by being optional, something Mr Wiggins said did not help get it started. It is now a mandatory card that will incorporate contact and contactless technology.

'When the Hong Kong government was doing research into smart cards five years ago, they looked at contactless cards - similar to the Octopus card - as well as contact cards,' Mr Wiggins said.

'A contact card may look a bit like a credit card but it is not magnetic. It is digital and quite different. They discovered that the general population had strong reservations about contactless cards. The public thought, erroneously, as it happens, that all somebody had to do was walk past you in the street to steal your personal information,' he said.

More importantly, Mr Wiggins believes, is that the card could be used to enable commerce.

'It could be an economic enabler and used as an authentication device for secure business transactions,' he said.

However, there is some way to go before Smartics becomes a tool of electronic commerce. The electronic certificate (the e-Cert) embedded in the smart ID has not been as successful as it could have been.

The idea behind an e-Cert is to identify a user in an electronically acceptable way. If you want to pay tax or handle a major transaction, it would be convenient if there was some kind of electronic ID that could be used to identify you. If the card can only be read by Immigration, there is little point in having an e-Cert.

Although the government has promised to help others tie into the technology, it has published little so far.

'Where the Hong Kong government has come up short is they have not published specifications for how one would interface with the card, as they had promised to do. They also have not set any guidelines on how an application would be approved that would take advantage of the card,' he said.

The government website does explain how to read the card but says nothing about how an application would be loaded - by a bank, for example. Nor has any kind of organisation been set up that would authorise applications. Without this, the card is not likely to be used for anything but identification.

Perhaps oddest of all, according to Mr Wiggins, is the lack of understanding of what a smart ID card really is.

If you lost a smart ID card, it could be a tedious process to get a new one. Even if you have lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years and have permanent resident status, you must still show up with a passport and fill in all sorts of paperwork to prove you are who you say you are. What was the point of the fingerprint then? The whole idea of having this data in digital form is to make it easier to identify people.


The print and images on a Hong Kong Smart ID Card have been etched in by laser under the surface instead of on top.

It is more expensive but make the card difficult to forge.

Other Asian nations that have jumped on the smart card bandwagon include Malaysia and Thailand.