The National Post
Friday, October 30, 1998
page A4

Ontario considering smart cards

Privacy concerns

by David Akin,

Ontario intends to replace drivers licenses and health cards with a single computerized smart card, capable of storing vast amounts of information about an individual.

A working group of several senior bureaucrats is studying ways to replace identification cards used to access provincial services with one wallet-sized credit card with a computer chip on it.

No jurisdiction in North America uses such a smart card. Alberta considered such a card for its health services but rejected the idea. B.C.'s Ministry of Health has considered using such a card but is not pursuing the matter at this time. Officials at other provincial health ministries reached yesterday said they had no plans for such a card.

An internal government memo obtained yesterday by National Post summarizes a Sept. 10 meeting between bureaucrats and Chris Hodgson, minister of northern development and mines, and chairman of the management board. The memo suggests the government will seek to give all Ontarians their own smart card within five years.

The initiative would significantly change the way Ontario's citizenry interacts with its government and also raises new concerns about a citizen's right to control his or her own personal information.

"As a privacy advocate, there's a worry about the possibility of merging all of these government databases - your driver's license, your health card, and whatever government benefits - are all going to be tied to this one card", said David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada and an assistant professor of computer science at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"There's a general principle when it comes to privacy that information collected for one purpose should not be put to a different purpose."

Jones said governments need to be held to a higher privacy standard than the private sector.

"In the business world, you can say no", Dr. Jones said. "When it comes to government services, there's only one game in town. You can't go elsewhere for your driver's license. So the protection for privacy concerns has to be greater when it comes to the government because citizens can't say no", Dr. Jones said.

Sources said the government would use a digital signature based on the scan of an individual's fingerprint to protect the data on any card.

Jeremy Adams, a communications assistant for Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer, said no such decisions have been made although a fingerprint-based system is under consideration.

"That's getting a bit far down the road. The first major hurdle is facilitating a better flow of information between databases. The main ones in government would be in health, transportation and the registrar's office", Mr. Adams said.

Mr. Adams said privacy protection is also the government's top concern and the subject of draft legislation now under consideration. "Privacy is the big issue with the draft legislation we have that can put better security measures on the sharing of information", Mr. Adams said.

Mr. Adams confirmed yesterday that some of the behind-the-scenes technologies to be used to implement a smart card plan will be incorporated into some health care pilot projects that will start soon in Hamilton, Kingston, Chatham, Paris, and Wawa.

The government believes one of the biggest benefits for users will be the ability to update information through a single agent, rather than filling out several forms at several different offices.

There is no indication yet, though, about the kinds of information to be stored on the card.

Some smart cards - those used with the Mondex experiment in Guelph, Ont, for instance - record transaction data, including where and when services are accessed.

Some smart card experts suggest a patient's treatment history, doctor's phone number, and other health data could be encoded on a card for quick access by any health care provider. An individual's driving record could also be encoded on the card.

Copyright © 1998 by The National Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.