The Federal government calls it a ‘Human Services Access Card’

We call it for what it is: a National ID Card System

Frequently Asked Question No. 13

Do smartcard schemes work?

A smartcard, better described as a chip-card, is a standard-sized plastic card that contains an integrated circuit or ‘chip’ which gives the card the ability to store and/or process data. The computer that is contained in a small chip is not very powerful, and needs a source of power to drive it. So a chip-card is not a standalone computer like a PC or even a PDA, digital camera, iPod or mobile phone. It needs to be connected into some kind of ‘dock’ to be usable. Such a dock is commonly referred to as a ‘card-reader’.

A chip-card is a potentially valuable component within a larger system. Chip-cards are portable, and can carry data from one place to another. And they can be programmed to test other devices that they communicate with, and to refuse to divulge data or to perform tasks unless they are satisfied that the other device has passed the test.

Chip-cards have been available for over two decades, and have been mainstream since the late 1980s. They are used in many applications.

In simple applications, chip-cards are reliable. An example is the Octopus Card used for public transport throughout Hong Kong. It is a simple card, running a simple program, and interacting through well-defined and reliable interfaces with simple readers. It has a simple but effective security scheme. (And an Australian company was the project manager for the project that implemented it).

In complex applications, the chip-cards themselves have been reliable, but the projects as a whole have in an embarrassingly and expensively high proportion of cases been disasters. The NSW and Victorian Governments are currently each on their third attempt over a 10-year period to get complex public transport ticketing to work.

The federal Government’s record with smartcard schemes is bad as well. Between 2004 and 2006, a pilot was conducted in Tasmania to replace 40,000 Medicare cards with smartcards. The card stored the same data as a standard magnetic-stripe card, but the holder could choose to add a digital photo.In February 2006, it emerged that only a derisory 2,450 had ever been issued. The Medicare pilot was quietly folded, and nothing appears to have been published about lessons learnt from the fiasco.

Put simply, every requirement that is added to a scheme increases the complexity exponentially, and reduces the likelihood that the scheme will work exponentially as well.

The Government’s proposal involves performing a vast array of functions for a vast array of government programs, that are run by a considerable number of government agencies, but that demand commitment from tens of thousands of organisations throughout the country, all of whom must install special equipment and software, most of whom don’t realise this yet, and many of whose professional and industry associations will probably be highly unenthusiastic about the idea.

The short answer is: the scheme is highly unlikely to work in the way the Government describes it.

But: the public service executives would get what they want out of it: the hub of a national identification scheme.

If you are aware of errors or omissions in this document, please let us know.

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