1998 / 10月
Marlene Chen /tr. by Scott Williams
Is the era of one card which functions as identification card, insurance card, drivers' license and stored-value card upon us? After heated competition, the China Citizen Card Consortium won the bidding for the National Card project. But a number of scholars and experts have serious doubts about the security measures to be taken to protect the information encoded on the cards. They worry that private information concerning individuals could be stolen. Whether or not Taiwan is ready to introduce such a "National Card" is now the subject of heated debate between industry, scholars and the government.
On August 10, the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission (RDEC) of the Executive Yuan announced that the Rebar-Group-led China Citizen Card Consortium had won the bidding to "build, operate and own" the National Card. The two sides immediately began contract talks which were forecast to be completed within 90 days. If these talks go smoothly and the contracts are signed, the first National Cards could be issued in 1999. A complete changeover will have been affected by June of 2001, at which time all of the citizens of Taiwan will have entered the era of "one card for all occasions."
In the first stage, the card will have two functions, serving as both a national identification card and a National Health Insurance card. In this stage, the card will be known as the "Combined National ID and Health Insurance Smart Card." Visible on its face will be the cardholder's name, birth date, national ID number and picture. An embedded IC chip will record personal information of a private nature including the cardholder's gender, legal address, birthplace, the names of the holder's parents and spouse, and the holder's fingerprints. This information will only be accessible with the aid of a card-reading device. All of the information in the National Health Insurance portion of the card will be of a private nature and will include personal information about the cardholder (name, birth date, gender, etc.), and a record of his or her major injuries and illnesses and last 12 hospital visits (without, however, information on diagnosis and treatment). Yang Chao-hsiang, chairman of the RDEC, says that the all-in-one National Card will reduce the number of cards citizens need to carry, allow "one-window service" at the Population Administration of the Ministry of the Interior, mean that only one card is necessary when seeking medical services under the National Health Insurance system and eliminate the trouble of filling out forms. The chip on the National Card will have 16 kilobytes of memory, so in the future not only could functions such as transaction confirmation, electronic signing of documents and the storing of electronic "cash" be added, it could also even allow for the establishment of a huge national database which could be used for surveys of the public or to provide information on spending habits and the movement of goods. In accordance with the needs of the individual cardholder and the relevant institutions, unused space on the card could be utilized as an access key for restricted areas, for parking control or even for pre-paid public transport tickets.
The possibilities are endless. In the future, such a card could contain almost the whole of a person's background. But this has many scholars worried. If cards were abused by criminals or misused in some other way, there could be unforeseeable consequences. The "Anti-National Card Alliance" has thus been formed by groups including the Green Party, the Taiwan Association for the Promotion of Human Rights and the professional association of Taipei lawyers, which hope to slow the government's efforts to issue the National Card.
Chu Hai-yuan, a researcher with the Academia Sinica, feels that after the National Card is issued, the government will know everything about everyone, striking a major blow to people's right to privacy. Professor Ho Chian-ming, with the Academia Sinica's Institute of Information Science, also points out that in the past people were accustomed to keeping their personal chop and ID card in separate locations to avoid having them stolen together. By combining these functions in one card, they can now be stolen together. Chiu Huang-chuan, a lawyer, says that according to the law governing the use of computers to process data on individuals, when public institutions collect and process information on citizens, they must have written approval from the individual concerned. He thus thinks that there is some question about the legality of the government's putting personal information and fingerprints on a card without the approval of the individual concerned.
Not only do scholars feel that the government must be prevented from violating the privacy of the individual, they also feel that we must be extremely careful about dealing with the private sector. Ho Chian-ming says that with the government outsourcing this project to the private sector, there could be serious consequences if the firm designs in a "back door" to the card or tinkers with the card reader. Right now, technology is insufficient to guarantee the security of networks, so there is a real possibility of hackers or others making criminal use of or changing personal data. Moreover, laws on the electronic signing of documents and on the monitoring of communications are still in the works, making it very difficult to provide legal protection of people's rights.
With criticism at fever pitch, Lee Yuan-Tseh, President of the Academia Sinica, wrote a letter to Premier Vincent Siew expressing the opinions of a number researchers. Lee feels that although the idea behind the card is a good one, Taiwan is not yet ready for a multi-purpose card. He feels it would be more appropriate if the government first promoted specific cards for specific purposes.
In fact, the RDEC has repeatedly stated that the National Card would be created in accordance with the principles of "protection of the public's privacy," "protection of the information system" and "respect for the choices of individuals." Moreover, the actions that they have taken so far are within the scope of current laws and technology.
Lee Cher-jean, director of the Department of Information Management at the RDEC, says that the storage of information on the National Card, both visible and hidden, will only be carried out by persons authorized to do so by the census law and National Insurance law. Other government organizations will not be able to access this information. Only when a citizen applies for a card or requests that information be changed will an employee of the Population Administration be able to view the hidden data. More detailed individual census and insurance data will not be stored on the chip. With regard to the security of the technology, the RDEC says that it has asked the contracting firm to provide the storage software to experts for analysis, making it very difficult for the firm to leave a "back door" into the card readers.
Although the public will be required to change to this card in the future, the decision whether or not to include functions such as the electronic signing of documents and the carrying of electronic cash will be made by the individual cardholder. Lee says that the government is moving towards multiple cards with multiple functions, not to one all-purpose card.
Chang Kung-pu, president of the China Citizen Card Consortium, also says that the National Card Company will only provide software and hardware system services. The company will never see the public's data. Moreover, it takes system safety very seriously and will build in passwords to prevent theft of the data.
The National Card project is ready to fly, but despite repeated assurances from the RDEC and the fact that it will only combine two functions in its initial stage, the public's opposition remains strong. Government agencies must still give careful consideration to the functions that the card will later include and the potential problems that may result.