TORONTO — Finland, a country best known in technology circles for its abundant cell phone use, is also a pioneer in smart cards.

Representatives from two Finnish government agencies conducted a live videoconference to Toronto Thursday morning to discuss smart card initiatives in Finland. The conference was organized by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) Ontario, particularly in light of the Ontario government’s initiatives to bring smart card technology to Ontario citizens next year.

Finland has two smart card projects underway: one for health information and a general card which acts as a passport within 19 European countries and includes services such as online banking and insurance, education and services provided by regional and public administration.

The multipurpose card project began in 1995, was piloted in 1998 and first became available to Finnish citizens in December 1999, said Tuire Saaripuu, a representative from the Population Register Centre (PRC) in Helsinki.

The card, contains an authentication certificate, the card holder’s digital signature certificate, and the PRC’s certificate authority certificate. “The idea was to build up a basic PKI (public key infrastructure) infrastructure for everyone to use,” said Saaripuu.

Citizens can purchase the cards for US$25 at police stations and are authenticated via an ID card, passport or driving licence. A chip is used to store data and the cards are password protected with a PIN code.

Finland’s electronic health cards were launched around the same time and are based on the same technology. They replace existing cards which have been in circulation for decades. “In the mid-1990s, Finland’s information society started to shift,” said Pekka Ruotsalainen from the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health. “We needed better security, seamless care — we needed new technology.”

The card is a key for accessing networked information in hospitals and for healthcare consent management via the card’s digital signature, he added. The centre is now testing the feasibility of storing data on the card itself, such as medical conditions, medication taken and a list of a patient’s last 10 visits to the doctor.

There was debate in Finland as to whether these two cards should be combined, but privacy concerns have squashed any attempt to do so, said Ruotsalainen. Citizens do not, for example, want their banks to be able to access their medical information.

The cards may be breaking new ground in citizen identity management, but they have not however received whole-hearted support from Finns. Only 10,000 health cards and 12,000 multipurpose cards have been distributed in a country of five million people. There have been problems accessing information online using the cards and there is a lack of card readers and software to make the technology work, said Saaripuu. There are also interoperability issues for smart cards throughout Europe, and standards must be agreed upon before they can be effectively used in other countries.

She predicts greater adoption for the multipurpose cards when these problems are ironed out and the cards are able to access more services. A major challenge, she said, is to push service providers to create more applications. “To have more cards we need far more services,” she said, “(but) we cannot force anyone to create services.”

She insists, however, that there will be more services added and there are hundreds of deals in the works with everything from banks to airlines.

Ontario’s own smart card project is underway, though there have been no announcements as to the technology it will employ or the actual services that will be available. In the past, the government has suggested it may be used for health care services, drug benefit programs, proof of age and driver’s licence renewal. For now, those decisions are on hold, according to Jason Wesley, spokesperson for the Management Board Secretariat for the Government of Ontario. “We want to make sure that we get it right,” he said. “We don’t want to run headlong into getting a card out. . . . All of those decisions are still in the research, planning, designing and testing phase.”

In the U.S., electronic cards are quite commonplace for both government and private sector applications, said Donna Farmer, CEO of the Smart Card Alliance, an advocacy organization with 185 member companies and universities, based in New York. The U.S. Department of Defence will issue four million smart cards to servicemen and women and several major financial institutions and retailers have made smart cards available to U.S. customers.

It is unlikely that national citizen identification cards will ever be issued in U.S., said Farmer, but there is renewed interest in using smart card technology to tightened security in airports. “I think you are seeing different groups looking at how they can address security failings that we’re aware of in existing technology,” she said. “In that arena, smart cards represent the best tool available to help protect personal privacy and still ensure security. But I don’t believe you’re going to see a national ID card in the States anytime soon.”

The Finnish multipurpose cards are designed to act as passports, but they will never become mandatory citizen identification, said Saaripuu. The cards are purely voluntary, she said. “It goes against (our) fundamental laws. We don’t see that kind of discussion today in Finland.”

The Government of Finland is currently considering using cell phones as a means of identification using a technology called SIM (cell phone subscriber identification module). The ubiquitous phones may even be used as passports.

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