Raw deal

Published: January 28th, 2002
Raw deal

Once again the Ontario government has proven itself several cards short of a full deck.

Last week the Toronto Star reported the province’s decision to curtail its highly controversial plans to issue smart cards that would have potentially stored health, birth and driver’s licence information.

There was no official announcement, of course. Governments don’t usually try to draw much attention to the fact that they’ve wasted more than $12.5 million, which is reportedly what was spent on consulting and research for the ill-fated initiative.

Spokespeople from the province’s Management Board said the smart card project had been shelved because it is “”financially untenable”” at this time. This is not ironic; it’s insulting. There was more than enough evidence out there to suggest this undertaking was doomed from the start, and the reaction from industry experts should have sent up red flags long ago.

In late 1999, for example, a federal position paper concluded that a national smart card program would cost upwards of $3.6 billion. Members of parliament agreed this was too much money to spend on something where the benefits, like reduced fraud, are so uncertain. They were right, but that wasn’t the only problem. Though the federal government has since passed the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), the privacy concerns that high-tech ID cards raise have by no means quieted down. Ontario, which is evidently so worried about the inadequacies of the PIPEDA that it is drafting its own privacy legislation, might have seen its citizens’ fear of centralized government-controlled information for the barrier that it is.

This public push-back is hardly indigenous to Canada. Australia, which Canada resembles in a number of demographic areas, remains the most high-profile case study of a smart card project that failed. Late last year the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) hosted a videoconference featuring representatives from Finland, which launched its smart card initiative in 1999. So far, only 12,000 out of about five million people are using the cards, and those that have taken the plunge have been dealing with glitches, lack of smart card readers and interoperability issues.

It’s possible the Ontario government took all this into account, but we’ll probably never know. The only thing definitively private about this endeavor was the government’s strategy. A group of researchers at the University of Toronto had planned to analyze the province’s proposals — and probably would have offered some informed feedback — but their efforts to elicit details were routinely rebuffed. When Technology in Government finally reached Ontario Management Board chairman David Tsubouchi, he said the province didn’t want to go to the public with “”all kinds of speculative stuff.”” In this case, speculation was important: the Big Brother fears that surround smart cards demanded that Ontarians properly understand the full implications of the project if they were to support it.

On Wednesday, the Smart Card Alliance will host a news briefing on the pros and cons of secure personal identification systems. Perhaps this will give us some of the answers the Ontario government didn’t. Meanwhile, as the province seeks input for its proposed Privacy of Personal Information Act, we should demand some accountability for this $12 million waste. Smart cards certainly pose some implementation challenges, but that doesn’t mean citizens should always accept the hand they’ve been dealt.

sschick@plesman.com

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