'Smart' ID Card Worries Hong Kong
Sun Mar 10, 5:02 PM ET
By VERNA YU, Associated Press Writer
HONG KONG - In 1949, Mao Tse-tung's communists conquered mainland China and set off a massive flow of emigration to this city, then a comparatively prosperous British colony.
Now, Hong Kongers are about to be issued a new ID card.
This time, they're getting so-called "smart" cards, with embedded computer chips that hold names, pictures and birthdates — as well as a digital template of both thumbprints.
Then as now, the mandatory cards are largely aimed at controlling Chinese immigration. Although Hong Kong is now a part of China under separate governance, border control remains tight.
"We've long had illegal immigration problems and everyone got used to carrying the identity card," said Eric Wong, Hong Kong's deputy director of immigration. "People just think it's a way of life."
Despite the worries of civil libertarians, smart ID cards — some with biometric data, like thumbprints — are gaining momentum elsewhere in Asia and western Europe.
Although Hong Kong's government backed down on proposals to have the cards carry health and bank records, civil libertarians like lawmaker Sin Chung-kai, who represents Hong Kong's technology sector, still have reservations.
"No matter how secure a system is, there is always a risk that it might get hacked into," Sin said.
Plastic smart cards, about the size of credit cards, contain embedded microchips loaded with data. Around the world, they are often used in public telephones and for electronic cash payments.
In the Hong Kong ID card, personal details such as name, birthdate, gender, residential status and conditions of stay for non-citizens are stored in the microchip and protected by encryption.
A subject of considerable debate in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, such cards are now optional in several countries that have either introduced them or plan to — including Finland, Malaysia and Japan.
Besides using them as simple IDs, Hong Kongers will use their cards to bypass the notoriously long waits when leaving or entering Hong Kong.
Smart card holders will speed through Hong Kong immigration, using self-service kiosks that match digital biometric data on the card against the cardholder's fingerprint image read by a scanner.
"People will simply insert the card, press their thumb against a detector and the system will match the data," Wong said.
Still, many Hong Kongers were alarmed when the government floated the idea of a high-tech card larded with personal information.
With local smart card hackers already showing their prowess, they feared the IDs presented too tempting a target. In Hong Kong and China as elsewhere, black marketeers sell pirated cable television decoders that use bootleg smart cards to decrypt pay TV channels.
To address public fears, Hong Kong's government opted against requiring the cards to serve as driving licenses and library cards.
With those and other applications optional, the government hopes its scaled-back proposal can be approved by lawmakers and launched next year.
The digital fingerprint characteristics will be stored on the card only — not in a government database — so even if a hacker penetrated the system, there would be no fingerprint data to steal.
If the card is stolen, officials say the data on the chip can't be easily retrieved.
Officials estimate the seven-year plan to distribute the mandatory cards to all Hong Kong residents, aged 11 and up, will cost $400 million.
The expense includes computer database, networks, card readers, technical support and additional staff. An initial $21 million contract was awarded last month to a consortium led by local telecoms company Pacific Century CyberWorks and including Mondex International of Britain.
Other governments launching smart ID cards have opted for less strict programs.
In September, Malaysia introduced an optional smart card called MyKad that functions as a driver's license and contains passport information. It may someday contain banking data and biometric data.
Japan plans next year to introduce an optional smart ID containing the cardholder's signature, photo and address.
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