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Saturday, September 02, 2006

What’s the Secret? - Political Comments – Part 2.

A few months ago I discovered your humble correspondent had made a minute contribution to the Smartcard debate by providing a quote that permitted the Labor Party Spokesman on the Smartcard Project to ask a question, with notice, of Minister Joe Hockey regarding the costs of the project.

The question and the responses are as follows:

Mr Kelvin Thomson asked the Minister for Human Services, in writing, on 14 June 2006:

(1) Is the estimated cost of $100 million to register Australians for the Smartcard, attributed to consultant Dr David More in The Australian on 13 June 2006, accurate; if not, what is the correct sum.

(2) Does the $1.1 billion allocated for the Smartcard project in the 2006 Budget include a sum for Smartcard registration; if so, what sum has been allocated for that purpose.

(3) Is the estimated cost of $100 million to provide the Smartcard cards, attributed to consultant Dr David More in The Australian on 13 June 2006, accurate; if not, what is the correct sum.

(4) Does the $1.1 billion allocated for the Smartcard project in the 2006 Budget include a sum for provision of the Smartcard cards; if so, what sum has been allocated for that purpose.

(5) Is there an intention to allow private businesses use of Smartcard infrastructure.

(6) Has he, or the Smartcard Taskforce, received advice to the effect that the creation of a more valuable, single proof of identity instrument will increase the appeal and practice of identity theft.

(7) Does he, or the Smartcard Taskforce, plan to endow department or agency staff with the power to (a) confiscate and/or (b) deactivate a Smartcard; if so, (i) who will have that power, and (ii) will the exercise of that power be subject to appeal by the cardholder.

Mr Hockey—The answer to the honourable member’s question is as follows:

(1) The cost of establishing the access card system is $1.09 billion over four years. For commercial reasons, detailed information regarding costs, including the cost of registering Australians for the Health and Social Services (HSS) access card is not publicly available.

(2) Yes, the cost of $1.09 billion over four years to introduce the HSS access card includes funding for the registration of Australians for the access card. However, as noted in the response to question (1), information regarding the estimated cost of registration is not publicly available.

(3) See response to question (1).

(4) See response to question (2).

(5) The Government does not intend to build all Smartcard infrastructure such as cards, readers and microchips. This is not core government business. Therefore it is obvious that the private sector will need to service its equipment.

(6) Advice that the introduction of the HSS access card will increase the appeal and practice of identity theft has not been received by the Minister for Human Services, the Smart Technologies and Services Taskforce or the Access Card Consumer and Privacy Taskforce.

Indeed, as the KPMG Health and Social Services Smart Card Initiative, Volume 1: Business Case notes:

“KPMG considers that greater trust in the overall system will be strengthened by consumers being confident that their card cannot be used by someone else. Having a photograph on the card and all the other securities in place, in our view, is likely to strengthen that confidence.” (Public Extract, Page 18).

(7) The abilities of staff from the Department of Human Services or its agencies to confiscate or deactivate access cards is not yet determined, this will be the subject of detailed design work and the advice of the Lead Advisor and Chief Technology

To prepare this answer it has taken approximately 2 hours and 21 minutes at an estimated cost of $137."

I would suggest you would have to score this answer 2/10 for provision of useful information and 9/10 for stonewalling.

What amazes me is why a breakdown at the level of enrolment costs and smartcard costs could not be provided. Details that might compromise the tendering process for the cards it is reasonable to withhold until such tendering is complete and pricing is determined, but providing estimates to the nearest 10-20 million (as the Government must have to provide the precise total cost of $1.09billion over 4 years) seems secretive in the extreme. It is, after all, a lot of public money and it would seem reasonable for the public to know a little more than just to total cost.

The response to question 5 is really bizarre. The Government would be not be expected to build any of the equipment involved – given there is not even a microchip fabrication plant in the country and it simply has neither the staff or capability to manufacture such products. But this was not the question. The question asked sought to understand if any Government infrastructure would be accessible or usable by the private sector i.e. if a new Government network is to be built to support Smartcard services will be private sector be able to use it.

The answer reveals a very poor understanding on the part of the public servant who drafted the response as to just what was being asked and what the implications were.

In fact, what is virtually certain, is that either a beefed up Medicare Australia network will be used or the private sector will provision the Access Card requirements for a fee which will most likely be transaction or usage based. The cards and readers will simply be purchased or leased commercially on behalf of the Government.

The response to question 6 is equally unsatisfactory. The question was going to the issue of the robustness of the identity services to be implemented to prevent identity fraud. Clearly what was needed in the answer were the reasons how the new card would reduce ID theft and evidence that backed that assertion. It should be noted that systems such as the Access Card are only as robust as their weakest link and the events of the last week or two surrounding the security of Government tax and Centrelink records make it clear where one potentially major weakness lies.

All in all an opportunity wasted for the Government to re-assure the public regarding the Access Card, its costs, its security and its workings.


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