Australian minister hits out at smart card critics

Australian Human Services Minister Joe Hockey has vigorouslydefended the virtues of the federal government’s planned smartcard,saying the project’s cost will be controlled and people’s privacywill not be compromised.

“I see some self-appointed experts say A$1.1 billion (US$805.2million) is not enough money, but the reason we appointed KPMG LLPis because we wanted to be sure the project had a very focused setof priorities,” Hockey said today at this year’s smartcard summitin Sydney.

“We want to avoid application creep and the numbers are crossverified by the Department of Finance, Treasury, and my own agency.We’re confident $1.1 billion will be an appropriate sum of moneyfor this infrastructure.”

The new Access Card is set to wipe out some 17 cards andvouchers inn use for various government services, including theMedicare card, across the “Human Services family,” and, as such,Hockey said it will be “easier to deal with logistically.”

“I will be distributing a trillion dollars over the next 10years and that provides an opportunity for fraud that isunacceptable to the government,” he said. “KPMG says it will saveA$3 billion over 10 years, but I think that’s a significant underestimate.”

Hockey also released some details about how the project isprogressing, saying the department is now in a tender process for”lead advisers and project managers” which will be announced inJuly. There is also a worldwide search for a chief technologyarchitect to do the detailed design of the card’s rollout.

By August there should be “frenetic” activity to make decisionsabout the technology infrastructure, undoubtedly the mostchallenging part of the project.

Executive director of the University of NSW’s Cyberspace Law andPolicy Centre, David Vaile is one of the most vocal critics of thegovernment’s projections, telling Computerworld the A$1 billion,18-month figures touted by Hockey are “unrealistic” for an ITproject of this scale. Vaile believes the project’s cost could blowout as far as A$5 billion.

But Hockey stood his ground and cited process efficiency asanother significant cost saver.

“Every time people front-up to a Centrelink office they spend anaverage of between 90 seconds and three minutes proving who theyare before the interaction begins,” he said. “This is a cumbersomeway of running Human Services.”

While conceding the optimal service delivery model would beInternet-based, Hockey said as many Australians not Net-connected,a “mezzanine model” was agreed on to take Australia from a”technology stone age” to a more modern, simpler form ofinteraction.

“This is an opportunity to roll out new infrastructure [and] tobe a platform for new technology to deliver benefits for allAustralians,” he said, stressing that care must be taken to avoidthe inconsistent “rail gauge” problem (different measurements ineach state) that plagued Australia.

“We are at pains to emphasize the important thing is thatstandards are consistent with the private sector to ensure we cangain maximum benefit from this technology.”

Hockey was pleased to report the states, particularlyQueensland, are working closely with the federal government oninteroperability, and while dealing with the banks in “a number ofways” the “bureaucratic resistance” has been difficult.

“The contribution of the banks has been extremely disappointing,so there’s a reason for us to set up a payment system incompetition with Eftpos,” he said, adding there are compellingarguments to have banking systems talking to the smartcard.

“If banks can make the technology work for us, we are interestedin any proposals they have,” Hockey said. “I assume they areworking on interoperability.”

One application of this interoperability Hockey proposed wasenabling the smartcard to be used at Eftpos outlets and automaticteller machines for people to access welfare paymentsinstantly.

“When Cyclone [Larry] hit far North Queensland the governmentwas taking wads of cash into town,” he said.

Hockey is also on a mission to debunk the ‘shock, horror’backlash and the numerous privacy concerns that a Human Servicessmartcard could harbor, and hence compromise, a person’s sensitiveinformation.

“It’s quite a simple card [and] on the face of it the cardcontains less information than existing cards,” he said. “Peoplethink by introducing a new card we will reduce the privacy ofindividuals, [but] it enhances privacy because a magnetic strip isnotoriously unreliable.”

Hockey displayed a mock-up of what the smartcard would looklike, containing a person’s photo and name on the front, with thename, signature and card number on the back. The embedded microchipwill contain basic identity information and, according to Hockey,the only field the government controls is the concession status -for example, if a person is a pensioner.

“All other mandated fields are in the control of the individual[and] there will be capacity for voluntary fields like organ donorstatus,” he said. “I have no desire to control that additionalinformation.”

As with the cost justification, Hockey argues the smartcard willstreamline existing processes in an environment where each year500,000 Medicare cards go missing, and 600,000 people are turnedaway from Centrelink because of lack of identity.

“That’s why we need to have photo to ensure the person is infact the person,” he said.

“Virtually every interaction with government has your signaturebut, shock horror, we will have your signature on the smartcard!This is not an Australia card [and] people will be provided withtechnology-neutral protections.”

Hockey said it’s not rocket science to suggest the Access Cardmay represent the most significant reduction in red tape of alltime.