Smart cards for a unique identity

Updated: Jun 4 2007, 05:45am hrs
Till now, a good number of Indian citizens had either of the four documents to prove their nationalitya passport, election ID, PAN card or the all too familiar family ration card. They can now gear up for more. A national identity card to uniquely identify a person. With smart card technology as its cornerstone, it will hold a number thats unique to you, your photograph along with your fingerprint. All rolled into a single smart card to give you your identity wherever you are in the country.

Sounds amazing isnt it but when the government recently presented the first few chip-based smart ID cards to a group of residents in North Delhis Narela area, kick-starting the completion of a pilot project in selected sub-districts of 12 states and one union territory, the scenario is closer to reality. The cards, christened multi-purpose national identity cards (MNIC), will have the name, date of birth, place of birth, parents name and the citizens photograph along with his/her educational qualifications. Digging deeper into the tech aspect, they have a micro processor chip with a memory of 16 KB that has been secured by using asymmetric key cryptography and symmetric key cryptography, making them secure against the risk of tempering and cloning.

A number of agencies were involved in the project: the National Institute of Design made the red-maroon patterned card, the National Informatics Centre helped collect data while IIT, Kanpur created the unique algorithm for the two check digits.

During the next year, the government intends to study issues relating to management of the cards including loss and damage of cards, the required infrastructure and the uses that the card can be put to. The project is part of a mammoth exercise being undertaken across several states to officially establish citizens identity.

The project on multi-purpose National ID cards, says SK Chakrabarti, deputy director-general at the Registrar-General of India, has followed the census approach for collection of particulars of each individual in the pilot areas. Along with the particulars of individuals, photographs and finger biometrics have also been collected of all those, who are 18 years of age and above. Subsequently, a network of card-reading machines across the country, including several at selected border-entry points, would be able to scan these cards to authenticate identity.

Besides meeting the security needs, the need for a multipurpose national identity card has been felt for purposes as diverse as applying for a passport or government licences. However, the ultimate aimto cover the entire countryis likely to take many years and the government admits as much. Current Census figures put the number of 18-year-olds in India at over 70 crore.

Says Chakrabarti, There is not much data available worldwide on such cards and the processes involved... we will learn slowly. National ID cards have long been advocated as a means to enhance national security, unmask potential terrorists, and guard against illegal immigrants. They are in use in many countries around the world including most European countries, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Currently, the United States and the United Kingdom have continued to debate the merits of adopting national ID cards. In these countries, photograph-bearing driving licenses are widely used for identification purposes but there is no national identity card scheme. Some countries, such as Denmark or Sweden, make widespread use of personal identification numbers issued at birth for all official transactions. The types of card, their functions, and privacy safeguards vary widely. Closer home, the main propose to issue multipurpose National ID cards is to provide a credible individual identification system for improving the security conditions and to help the e-governance by improving the citizen-government interface.

However, the rollout of the project has had its share of inordinate delays. Though the pilot project was initiated in November, 2003, its actual implementation has taken longer due to difficulties encountered at almost each and every stage of its implementation. These include non-availability of data entry operators in regional languages, difficulties in capturing of photographs and finger biometrics, non-availability of power, validation of individual data for correct spellings of names and other attributes, cumbersome and tedious process of verification of citizenship, weak document base for determining citizenship of individuals in rural areas and so on.

Going forward, ministry of home officials inform that the contract for production and distribution of smart cards have been given to a consortium of Central public sector undertakings. As the chip that will store all relevant information will be imported, Indian companies will be involved in personalisation of the card.

In recent times, India has been rapidly adopting new applications for smart card technology in a variety of segments, primarily to accelerate the government-to-citizen (G2C) interface and to bring transparency and accountability in the system. They are currently being used in many G2C applications such as vehicle registration, driving licenses, healthcare, public distribution systems etc.

For those looking for the unique identity, its now time to grab the new smart card doing the rounds.