Smart moves

It was the mid-1980s. It was Paris. It was mid-winter. Your correspondent was stuck in a lift. The lift was jammed because the smartcard she had been handed did not do its job and recognise her as authorised to proceed to the ground floor.

A healthy scepticism about smartcards has persisted.

That scepticism has been helped along by the slug-like process of smartcard deployment in Australia. Although smartcards are used to hold the subscriber identity module required to operate digital mobile phones, and as the basis for Telstra's stored value phone card, they have otherwise made slow progress.

Remarkably, considering the slow uptake of the technology in Australia, as a nation we have produced a number of world-class smartcard players. Companies such as ERG, Keycorp, Intellect and CardsEtc have carved out significant exports from smartcards. (It's just as well, as they wouldn't have sold many at home).

Visa International's Bruce Mansfield, the head of alliances and new channels for e-Visa Asia Pacific, believes that overseas smartcards have been adopted fastest in those countries where there is an increasing incidence of fraud and high telecommunications costs. He claims Australia does not suffer from these twin problems and therefore has failed to come up with a convincing business case to roll out any large-scale smartcard applications.

There have been many trials, but few large-scale deployments.

There was hope that the NSW Government's plans to have a smartcard-based mass transit ticketing system would showcase the technology during the 2000 Olympics. The Government first called for expressions of interest in 1997, after all. Four years on and the application is yet to see light of day.

Meanwhile, overseas smartcard applications are gushing out, particularly in Europe. France, in particular, has engaged in a long affair with the smartcard (no doubt having long ago sorted out its rogue elevator). Perth-based ERG has signed no fewer than 30 orders with France for its systems in the past 18 months.

One of the reasons that the French like the system is that as a nation they are well used to the notion of carrying and using identity cards for getting anything done, from buying a house, arranging schooling or getting a loan. Australians, however, are very uncomfortable with this concept as it reminds them of the big brother qualities associated with the Australia Card. It seems we don't want our data stored on a smartcard.

That might soon change.

As more businesses and individuals are encouraged to conduct e-commerce, there will be a need for more security, which might well be provided by a smartcard. For example, a smartcard could be programmed to hold the certification authority that an individual or business would need in order to interact with an application secured by public key infrastructure (PKI) technology. Teamed with biometrics - which might confirm that the holder of the card shared the same fingerprint as the certificated holder - the smartcard could dramatically reduce the opportunities for online fraud.

Security will also be key to the Federal Government's e-health initiatives, which have begun with a project at the Alfred hospital in Melbourne where general practitioners are informed of patient discharges in a PKI-protected network. At present, secure access is provided through digital certificates held on tokens, but there is no reason why that application might not in the future be smartcard-based and be extended to include Australian citizens.

The potential applications for smartcards are many: to store personal banking account information, contain loyalty programme membership details, and hold stored value for specific trading applications. Potential applications will increase again with the advent of 2.5G and 3G wireless services in which mobile phones could act as mobile smartcard terminals in a range of scenarios. Visa is already exploring possible mobile applications and, in one overseas trial, is using a Nokia handset as a smartcard reader. The phone can transmit information over a radio frequency link to a vending machine, allowing a consumer to order a can of drink and complete the transaction just by pointing the phone at the vending machine.

Although as a nation we have been slow and sceptical about smartcards, they are about to arrive en masse.

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Beverley Head

PC World
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