The Obsession with Smartcards

The following article is a contribution by Jonas Lind, CEO of SilverTech Global, on his reflections about digital identity and the public sector.


The past week has been a hectic one with two back-to-back business conferences on going digital in the public sector. I spoke about “The Government Unicorn” (a book I am co-authoring with Lars Karlsson) at the GTDW  conference in Singapore and then it was straight to Namibia to attend ID4Africa 2017 – part of a movement to promote the responsible adoption of modern digital identity systems as drivers of socio-economic development in Africa.

The digital agenda is one that has been talked about and pushed forward for some time now; mostly because it’s inevitable. From all perspectives, whether personal, commercial or national governance, the entire world is moving in this direction.

There are many topics to explore but from this recent work trip, I was reminded yet again about this really strange phenomenon when it comes to digital identity and the public sector. Which, basically means the obsession with smartcards.

I don’t deny that the ID card and other security documents serve an important function in rolling out an ID project. Thus the vendor should be carefully selected to ensure quality and security. However, what I cannot reconcile and find peculiar is that the selection of the ID card manufacturer also heavily influences the selection of the core system provider. 

From my experience, there is just too much focus on the consumables (i.e. the smartcard) when it comes to government ID projects. Really, the smartcard is only a commodity. The card does not equate to digital identity. In a nutshell, what makes the digital ID precious is how it can function as a unique identifier (a string of numeric or alphanumeric digits that is associated with a single individual within a given system), and not its physical form.

We can easily put this into perspective by drawing comparison with the mobile phone industry. There is the hardware (the phone itself), the software (the operating system and mobile applications) and the SIM card (a physical commodity to “house” a unique telephone number).

A country’s ID card is much like the phone SIM card. There is the hardware (the servers, computers, equipment, etc), the software (the operating system and applications) and the ID card (a physical commodity to “house” the ID number tagged to a citizen).

Now, if you think about it, how many telecom operators are actually buying their software platforms from manufacturers of SIM card? Or take banks for example. How many banks are buying their core banking platform from the manufacturers of the credit/ATM cards? The answer is startlingly clear but somehow, that is not the case for government ID projects. One can even speculate if the relatively large failure rate in national ID projects could have something to do with this misplaced obsession. 

Although the smartcard situation described above by and large still describes how the digital identity industry is today, I believe it will not stay so for long. No one can argue with the fact that the core competencies required to be a smart card manufacturer is very different from the competencies required to successfully implement large mission critical systems. What the industry needs to put in perspective is that while a secure ID card still has an important function, it should not be the core focus of an ID project. 

The good news is that I have personally encountered public sector leaders whose vision and focus buck the current norm. And over the course of my interactions at the ID4Africa conference, I have hope that, slowly but surely, more governments will move away from the futile obsession with smartcards.

I applaud those who have done so, and champion those who are yet to come.


The Obsession with Smartcards