In 1949, when the Communists took over Mainland China, there was a flood of emigration to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. To deal with this, the government introduced mandatory ID cards, made simply of cardboard.

A lot has changed since then. Hong Kong is now part of the People’s

Republic of China. And it’s replacing its national identity cards with multi-application, biometric-based smart cards.

With the four-year rollout now underway, the Smart Identity Card System (SMARTICS) is one of the most ambitious projects of its kind in the world. When complete, seven million Hong Kong residents will use a smart ID card for mandatory government functions and optional business functions (through e-Cert).

The credit card-sized piece of plastic will include personal data such as name, birthdate, gender, residential status and photo, as well as a digital template of both thumbprints. A driver’s licence application will be introduced in 2006. The data is stored in a microchip and protected by encryption.

While some believe Hong Kong is taking the lead in smart card implementation, others — namely civil libertarians — warn that the use of such technology can backfire, causing human rights abuses by allowing governments to better control citizens.

Even the inventor of the smart card, Roland Moreno, said the technology has “”the potential to become Big Brother’s little helper.””

In some countries, plans to roll out national identity cards have met with resistance from pro-privacy groups.

One group, Privacy International, has spent the past decade opposing such proposals in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand. Past attempts to roll out national ID cards in South Korea and Taiwan failed when met with strong resistance.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center questioned Canada’s proposed national ID card, which would require fingerprint and iris scans of all Canadians. In a report, the group said the proposed card would likely breach Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“”The identity card proposed for Canada involves the concept of converged or ‘joined-up’ data resources. This poses grave threats to the security of data,”” says the report.

“”It also introduces the inevitability that data will be lost, misinterpreted, mutated or abused. Multiple-agency access to sensitive data greatly increases the potential for misuse of information, either through corrupt disclosure or lapses in security.””

The issue of privacy protection, however, is unlikely to be debated in Mainland China, where its Golden Card Project started rolling out this year. As many as 800 million smart ID cards could be in use by 2006, according to a Dow Jones report. These cards will replace the existing plastic-coated paper IDs currently in use.

Chinese officials say this will help eliminate counterfeit IDs. Civil libertarians argue it’s a way to more easily track the country’s 1.3 billion citizens. One advantage of a centralized party system: officials don’t have to worry about public debate or provide objective media coverage on the issue.

There are both pros and cons to smart card technology; it holds both promise and peril for e-government. In many cases, smart ID cards are optional, rather than mandatory. In Hong Kong, however, refusing to obtain a smart ID card constitutes an “”offence.””

The key is to make sure privacy is protected at all costs — but that’s not easy in countries where privacy and human rights are not protected by legislation. Smart cards need to be smart enough to ensure they don’t become Big Brother’s little helper.

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