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A card-carrying member of the 'UK Society'?

Geoff Llewellyn and Bob Conway of the SchlumbergerSema Public Sector Entitlement Card Team, discuss the practicalities of implementing a national system of personal smart card identification.

It was OK then

War years aside, this nation has coped well enough in the absence of a mechanism to establish personal identity within statistically high confidence limits. Until now it has been sufficient, in a paper-based society, for fairly crude levels of authentication to be used in establishing one’s personal credentials, often by means of utility bills, council tax bills, NHS numbers or National Insurance numbers.

But that was before we all carried out such a large (and increasing) proportion of our activities by means of computer-based transactions. It was before e-commerce enabled us to do our shopping on-line 24/7. It was before internet banking existed. It was certainly before we became familiar with the instant communication fixes that are emailing and text messaging. But more importantly, it was before thieves were clever enough to steal the magstripe information off our hole-in-the-wall cards. It was before sophisticated hackers could get into our personal affairs and alter them. It was before criminals became clever enough to assume entire identities.
Now, the patchwork quilt which is the basis for establishing identity and thus entitlement is under scrutiny. A number of flaws have been found to exist in the major domains of identity certification. Utility bills can be faked or arranged. Subject to possible later challenge, Local Authorities register all names returned on electoral registration forms. Even driving licences have been applied for under aliases. Clearly something better is required to take its place.

The age of enablement

In an era when e-Government ambitions mean it is desirable for UK residents to return taxes, cast votes and apply for various public services on-line, the entitlement card concept can be seen as a way to mediate dealings between Government and the citizen. It may enable the sort of unlimited access to government which the populace expects and demands for itself in the current, ‘can-do’ technological climate.

This country is the largest of only four in the 15-nation EU without either a compulsory or voluntary identity card. It has been suggested that the introduction of identity schemes abroad could have the effect of “squeezing the balloon” of identity crime so that it bulges in alternative directions. The Government, therefore, is considering something which may prevent it bulging in the direction of the UK .

Of course, the Government would like to reduce administration costs, standardise infrastructure, obtain the benefits of scale, set common standards and ascertain best practices. But it would also like to be able to monitor those who are (or would be) asylum seekers, prevent ID fraud, catch criminals more easily and minimise the UK as a target for international crime. It is understandably exploring this by researching the benefits which entitlement cards can bring. And to do all this they need to be smart.

Our track record

This is where SchlumbergerSema, with a fund of warning and salutary experiences from numerous successful implementations around the world, could help. Leading-edge companies like ours can readily assist government in providing the innovative technology which will be required.

The hardware and the ‘cardware’, though, merely demonstrate the tip of our capability iceberg. For example, we have already delivered the technology that:

  • enables microprocessor chips to act like mini-computers, storing patient prescriptions and medical records (e.g. our French national health insurance SESAM-Vitale cards, issued to 40 million French citizens)
  • provides latest security key access to government IT systems and buildings (e.g. our US Department of Defence Common Access Cards, issued to 4.5 million US personnel)
  • opens turnstiles at stations and debits travel purses (e.g. our SmartCities initiative, implemented in Southampton)
  • executes state-of-the-art biometry such as iris scans (which we have already demonstrated to several public sector organisations).

But in addition, and perhaps more importantly, we can provide governments with answers to questions such as, what constitutes the appropriate end-to-end solution, how should the most effective back office be organised, what is the optimum infrastructure and how should it be established, how should the various communication centres operate and how can mass registration schemes and maintenance systems be rolled out and managed?

Security and confidentiality

Commentators are advising David Blunkett not to take the UK public’s concern with privacy, nor the individual’s perception of anonymity, lightly in the forthcoming debate on the entitlement card. In any entitlement card programme safeguards against unauthorised access to information and prevention of its illegal use will need to be effected by applying stringent rules of conduct and sound security mechanisms. A benchmark for this, for example, would be the strict control maintained over the Police National Computer.

The law currently appears to enshrine the right of an individual to operate under a pseudonym. But will this still be possible in the future? It depends on what flavour of entitlement scheme is introduced. It could be one where entitlements are accessed by having simply a card which has been validated to receive them – like a ‘ticket.’ Alternatively, it could be a scheme where it is the person carrying the card who has been verified and validated. The forthcoming debate will determine whether the individual has more to gain by being the secure possessor of an authenticated identity, or by being able to operate without the apparent need for one.

In the debate too, assessment needs to be made of the alternative merits in having relevant data about us all in one place, able to be seen and corrected by us, yet guarded by the very best that technology and the law can provide, and the system whereby small jigsaw pieces of data about us are maintained unconnectedly, in separate public and private sector databases.

What happens next?

It seems likely that if an entitlement card scheme is adopted, it will be an evolutionary process. It is possible it may start off as a plain plastic card (much like the driving licence is now), but with a non-functional chip on it for later use. In recent months you have probably noticed that your credit card is not being swiped in shops any more – the microprocessor chip, so long left dormant, is being read instead. We would not be surprised if, by 2005 there were several “entitlement cards” in common use, e.g. passport, driving licence, E111 visitors’ health entitlement card and various local government services cards, and that they evolve thereafter from several cards into a common scheme, with the auspices of the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) ensuring commonality of standards. It is also possible that there will no big-bang effect with regards to registration and issuance of the entitlement card, perhaps coming piecemeal via transfer from new, secure forms of authenticated ID, such as re-modelled UKPS or DVLA schemes. Less likely, but possible, is that the Government may be able to utilise an extant communication infrastructure, if such a open-standard system can be found within the commercial world.

Implementation of the entitlement card will probably not happen quickly. There are fundamental issues, such as the concept of citizenship, which will require debate. Also, there are many inter-dependent forces in play, affecting where matters may ultimately find equilibrium. Many of these forces can be considered as pairs, pulling in diametrically opposite directions along the same continuum.

For example, the quicker the concept of an entitlement card were developed, the less would be its starting sophistication. The more functionality it contained, the less cheap it would be to deliver. The more simplistic the card, the less e-Government enablement it would carry. The more shared data it contained, the less ‘private’ it would be. The easier the accessibility, the more problematic to maintain security levels, and so on. It is the resolution of these forces which will ultimately determine where the practical implementation of the entitlement card concept will come rest.

However these forces resolve themselves in the coming months, SchlumbergerSema looks forward to contributing to both the debate and to the rollout of whatever solution subsequently emerges.

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Reproduced with the kind permission of Partnership Media Group, publishers of PSD