The Ontario government's plan to create smart cards to access a wide range of government services should be a red flag for anyone concerned about privacy, warn computer and privacy experts.
David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group committed to protecting privacy and freedom of expression in cyberspace, says his worst fear is the creation of a "surveillance society".
In a Big Brother world of electronic surveillance, "a government watches every aspect of your life constantly and cross-references all of the different interactions you've had with the government", says Jones, a professor of computer science at McMaster University.
And there's precedence in Canada to support his concern. Jones cites the 1997 uproar over the federal government's use of travel declaration cards to track down employment insurance cheats.
"As a defence mechanism, we need to be able to compartmentalize our interactions with government", he says.
Management Board Chair Chris Hodgson insists that protection of privacy is a paramount concern in the development of smart cards. Ontario is committed to protecting individual privacy and ensuring that smart cards, once implemented, provide secure access to public services, he says.
And Hodgson says he's working closely with the province's privacy commissioner on the development of the technology.
The province plans to table legislation paving the way for smart cards this spring. The high-tech cards would replace OHIP cards, drivers' licences, birth certificates, hunting and fishing licences, and any other cards that access government services.
The province plans to test the waters with smart-card pilot projects in 2002. And the following year, it plans to roll smart cards out to the public in a larger scale.
According to a recently issued government news release, the majority of Ontarians support the idea of introducing smart cards to the province.
The release cites a poll, conducted last May, which found that 58 per cent of those surveyed would support the use of smart cards to access government services.
It boasts that more than half of respondents felt that reducing fraud would be the best reason to introduce smart cards.
But what the news release neglects to mention is that the poll also showed that 68 per cent of respondents would not be more likely to support a smart card even if the privacy and security of personal information was protected.
(The poll was a telephone survey of 800 Ontarians conducted by Angus Reid. It's accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.)
Privacy concerns were heightened this past week with media reports that the government is looking at integrating biometrics into smart cards, a proposal that could require fingerprinting or retinal scanning of Ontarians. While the province is working with a New York biometrics consulting company on the idea, Hodgson's office says the likelihood of proceeding with it is low.
Liberal Health Critic Lyn McLeod (Thunder Bay-Atikokan) says she doesn't trust the Conservative government with something so potentially explosive. She acknowledges that smart cards could be useful for the expansion of primary health care networks, which would see patients cared for by groups of health-care professionals, not just doctors.
But McLeod charges that the Tories have a history of violating the privacy of Ontarians.
"I'm terrified of any smart-card technology in the hands of a government that has a track record of going after personal information", she says.
She cites the recent resignation from cabinet of Rob Sampson as corrections minister. He was forced to step down after backbench Tory MPP Doug Galt (Northumberland) read out a list of names of young offenders in the Legislature -- contrary to the Young Offenders Act, which bans publication of the names of young criminals.
The government made the same mistake in 1998 when the Throne Speech revealed a young offender's name, forcing the resignation of then corrections minister Bob Runciman.
The year before, an aide to the health minister was forced to resign after revealing confidential information to a newspaper reporter about the OHIP billings of a doctor critical of the government.
Despite government assurances that privacy will be protected, there's always room for bureaucratic screw-ups, Jones warns.
Jones says many questions about smart cards remain unanswered:
How much fraud would they root out? Would the savings really offset the cost of developing the technology?
Would customer service improve considerably? Would the convenience of having all government cards consolidated into one be worth it?
And why does a hunting and fishing licence have to be on the same card as OHIP information?
"Why do I have to hand a piece of plastic with links to my health information to the fishing guy? We have to put in all kinds of mechanisms to prevent the fishing guy from finding out that I have diabetes", Jones says.