Do the smart card shuffle

I would love to have seen the guy who dressed up like a computer to protest Japan’s recent introduction of national ID cards.

You have to wonder why he didn’t just dress up as one of the ID cards themselves, which would probably have been a lot easier to make and a lot less clumsy to wear.

Then again, this same protest also included some sort of dance and a short “”sketch”” to show why the demonstrators think ID cards are a bad idea. It’s a good thing they have such a flair for the theatrical, because their reactions — and the Japanese government’s introduction of the cards — make an audience of us all.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 put the notion of smart card-style identification systems back in the spotlight, but the idea has been brewing in North America for years. Vendors have been all too eager to take part, particularly Sun Microsystems, whose chief executive Scott McNealy publicly endorsed the idea in the United States one month after the Twin Towers collapsed.

We have already discussed the possible advantages and potential dangers of these cards in this space. The case against them is becoming easier to argue by the day, and is perhaps best articulated in the American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network’s “”Five Reasons Not to Adopt a National ID Card.””

What may be more pertinent at this stage — given ongoing efforts by groups like Advanced Card Technology (ACT) to promote smart ID cards in Canada — is to place the issue in a more global context. The Japanese plan is significant not merely because of the information the government will collect through the program, though that obviously raises concerns. Reaction in Japan will go to extremes most likely because it is such an about-face for a country that has never used ID cards before. In this it is something of a minority.

In Belgium, for example, some form of ID card has been in place since 1919 and they have slowly advanced to include detailed health information like the card holder’s blood type. Portugal has compulsory cards that contain health, education, banking and post office data. Germany has compulsory cards too, but government databases may not share information contained on the cards by law. Like Canada and the United States, Britain is still debating the merits of a card program. Australia and the Netherlands flirted with the idea about 10 years ago, but the backlash put all plans on the back burner.

There has always been a tacit assumption that any cards issued in Canada (or the States) would be mandatory, but clearly there are other options. The cards might not be used at border checkpoints or at airports, for example, but simply in the renewal of driver’s licence information. This would not avoid the problem of how personal information contained on the cards is managed, but it does counter the notion that they would become a sort of internal passports for a country’s citizens. Similarly, there are differences in the level of identification. Portugal’s cards have fingerprints as well as a photo, while I’ve heard little mention of fingerprints in the plans for a Canadian card. History also plays its part in the strategy. The United Kingdom did implement an (admittedly low-tech) ID card at the height of the Second World War, but they abandoned it by the early 1950s.

Though we must recognize the cultural differences in regards to individual privacy and security, an international comparison of ID card strategies helps define some of the questions we need to ask. Before we deal the cards, we should look at how other countries have stacked the deck.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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