Smart cards – in the form of credit cards and SIM cards – are the most common form of IT processing power on the planet. In the hands of citizens, credit cards mediate daily transactions worth trillions of dollars while SIM cards facilitate millions of conversations which bind together our social and economic worlds. In the last two decades these two tools, more than any other technology, have quietly taken us all into a virtual world held together by information stored on electronic media.
In developed countries, the ubiquitous credit/debit card has finally separated economic transactions from any physical manifestation such as handing over cash or cheques, while the mobile phone with its SIM card has separated communication from the constraints of the fixed infrastructure of telephone lines.
In the public sector where service has often been free at the point of use because it is an entitlement of citizenship qualified by circumstances, payment has also been “virtual” because it has been made through the tax system. It was enough to say that you were a citizen – indeed to be present in the national territory – to qualify for many benefits provided by the Welfare State.
As proofs of citizenship and entitlement are increasingly necessary, it makes sense for them to be provided in a manner which has high integrity and trustworthiness; both characteristics were necessary for smart credit cards and SIMs to have made the contribution that they have already made. If these technologies had not swiftly demonstrated, and acquired a reputation for, reliability and integrity, the networks built around them could not have developed.
In this context it is also important to note that citizen expectations of both convenience and security have been rising apace, and there is pressure for public services to be delivered in as modern a manner as those of the private sector.
Fortunately, therefore, the smart card and chip technology which has transformed our economic and social transactions is available to do the same in the sphere of public service delivery. Moreover, well-tested capabilities of the smart card can add extra facilities to the public service domain to provide benefits to citizens.
This paper examines the ways in which smart cards have already, and could, in future, deliver the outcomes that governments across the world are seeking as they strive to improve public services. The available technology offers the potential for a virtuous circle of increasing take-up supporting increasing functionality and increasing attractiveness of e-ID to the citizen.
The challenge to all governments will be to achieve this virtuous circle and avoid the risk of issuing e-ID with limited functionality and limited appeal.