Smart Cards for Citizen ID..Let's Not Build Castles in the Air



The Smart cards Expo in New Delhi has thrown up many marketing gauntlets for the GOI to bite as regards introduction of Smart Cards for Citizen ID.

One of such gauntlets has been the idea that every one of the one billion Indian will have a smart card with an embedded digital certificate so that he can even get an online passport in a day or two. (Ref: Enclosed report in The Hindu).

Costs are Prohibitive:

If the GOI accepts the suggestion, we shall have 100 crore Smart Cards, a few  lakh smart card readers and a few thousand smart card writers purchased from various vendors who are licking their lips in anticipation. The total cost of such a purchase would be  over Rs 17000 crores. made up of the following.

a) Smart Cards capable of holding data and private key: Rs 150 per card (Rs 15000 crores)

b) 10 lakh Smart Card readers at around Rs 6000/- per reader (Rs 600 crores with annual replacement of around Rs 60 crores)

c) 50,000 Smart Card writers at around Rs 3 lakhs each (RS 1500 crores)

(P.S: The above figures are provisional and it can be argued that at such quantities the actual costs will be much lower. But in principle the budget for the exercise is likely to be astronomical.).

It is impossible to think that  GOI is really thinking of such an expenditure nor it is capable of bearing such a huge cost which will ultimately have to be boarne by the Citizens themselves.

Smart Cards for Digital Signature

The proposal is also faulty from yet another angle.

The Digital Signatures became a legal reality once the IT Bill was presented in the Parliament in December 1999. But it took more than three years for two vendors to come up with a proposal to issue digital certificates, Safescrypt and TCS. The number of certificates so far issued by these two companies to the public are negligible. Neither of these companies nor the MIT have invested enough time and money in building an awareness of Digital Signatures amongst the public or the corporate sector. The PKI applications also became a reality only in the current year with Odyssey coming up with some products and Safescrypt following with a few more.

Under the circumstances the market is no where ready even at the informed corporate levels to start using Digital Signatures. None of the Government officials including IT Secretaries and those governing E-Governance projects have been equipped with digital signatures as of now. Even the officials of the Controller of Certifying Authorities themselves are yet to start using Digital Signatures in their correspondence. Many of the celebrated E-Governance projects are legally erroneous implementations due to  PKI non-compliancy. The task of educating the market on Digital Signatures is huge and will take several years to be accomplished.

It is also not clear if the law on digital signatures would undergo modifications which may make bio-informatics signatures being used instead of the current technology for digital signatures.

Readers are aware that the undersigned is a strong advocator of the PKI technology and use of digital signatures. There is also no doubt that it is in this area that Smart Cards have a relevance and not for holding data on health or Vehicle registration or Driver's License details etc.

However, it is neither feasible, nor desirable to introduce Private Key embedded Smart Cards for the Citizen ID project. We must remember that such cards will invoke the private key by use of a "Password" and the security will be as strong as the password. (If the custody of the Card gets compromised). Hence the possibility of Citizens losing their identity card and along with it their passport etc is more than a reality.

Cost of Digital Certificates:

It is also to be remembered that the Digital Certificates themselves would cost at least RS 500/- per year for each subscriber or a total of Rs 50,000 crores for the 100 crore Indians who are eligible for the above smart cards.

Under such circumstances, talking of the advantages of Smart Cards to hold Digital Signatures and pushing the Citizen ID card project is nothing but building castles in the air.

The present hype about use of Smart Cards for Citizen ID needs to be tempered as it may create a situation where huge investments of the Government may go down the drain.


September 24, 2003

Related Article in The Hindu: Time to get 'smart' on national ID cards?

Related Article in Smart Cards and Their Limitations

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