Hockey hits out at smartcard critics, laggard banks

Human Services Minister Joe Hockey has vigorously defended the virtues of the federal government's planned smartcard, saying the project's cost will be controlled and people's privacy will not be compromised.

"I see some self-appointed experts say $1.1 billion is not enough money, but the reason we appointed KPMG is because we wanted to be sure the project had a very focused set of priorities," Hockey said today at this year's smartcard summit in Sydney.

"We want to avoid application creep and the numbers are cross verified by the Department of Finance, Treasury, and my own agency. We're confident $1.1 billion will be an appropriate sum of money for this infrastructure."

The new Access Card is set to wipe out some 17 cards and vouchers inn use for various government services, including the Medicare card, across the "Human Services family", and, as such, Hockey said it will be "easier to deal with logistically".

"I will be distributing a trillion dollars over the next 10 years and that provides an opportunity for fraud that is unacceptable to the government," he said. "KPMG says it will save $3 billion over 10 years, but I think that's a significant under estimate."

Hockey also released some details about how the project is progressing, saying the department is now in a tender process for "lead advisers and project managers" which will be announced in July. There is also a worldwide search for a chief technology architect to do the detailed design of the card's rollout.

By August there should be "frenetic" activity to make decisions about the technology infrastructure, undoubtedly the most challenging part of the project.

Executive director of the University of NSW's Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, David Vaile is one of the most vocal critics of the government's projections, telling Computerworld the $1 billion, 18-month figures touted by Hockey are "unrealistic" for an IT project of this scale. Vaile believes the project's cost could blow out as far as $5 billion.

But Hockey stood his ground and cited process efficiency as another significant cost saver.

"Every time people front-up to a Centrelink office they spend an average of between 90 seconds and three minutes proving who they are before the interaction begins," he said. "This is a cumbersome way of running Human Services."

While conceding the optimal service delivery model would be Internet-based, Hockey said as many Australians not Net-connected, a "mezzanine model" was agreed on to take Australia from a "technology stone age" to a more modern, simpler form of interaction.

"This is an opportunity to roll out new infrastructure [and] to be a platform for new technology to deliver benefits for all Australians," he said, stressing that care must be taken to avoid the inconsistent "rail gauge" problem (different measurements in each state) that plagued Australia.

"We are at pains to emphasize the important thing is that standards are consistent with the private sector to ensure we can gain maximum benefit from this technology."

Hockey was pleased to report the states, particularly Queensland, are working closely with the federal government on interoperability, and while dealing with the banks in "a number of ways" the "bureaucratic resistance" has been difficult.

"The contribution of the banks has been extremely disappointing, so there's a reason for us to set up a payment system in competition with Eftpos," he said, adding there are compelling arguments to have banking systems talking to the smartcard.

"If banks can make the technology work for us, we are interested in any proposals they have," Hockey said. "I assume they are working on interoperability."

One application of this interoperability Hockey proposed was enabling the smartcard to be used at Eftpos outlets and automatic teller machines for people to access welfare payments instantly.

"When Cyclone [Larry] hit far North Queensland the government was taking wads of cash into town," he said.

Hockey is also on a mission to debunk the 'shock, horror' backlash and the numerous privacy concerns that a Human Services smartcard could harbour, and hence compromise, a person's sensitive information.

"It's quite a simple card [and] on the face of it the card contains less information than existing cards," he said. "People think by introducing a new card we will reduce the privacy of individuals, [but] it enhances privacy because a magnetic strip is notoriously unreliable."

Hockey displayed a mock-up of what the smartcard would look like, containing a person's photo and name on the front, with the name, signature and card number on the back. The embedded microchip will contain basic identity information and, according to Hockey, the only field the government controls is the concession status - for example, if a person is a pensioner.

"All other mandated fields are in the control of the individual [and] there will be capacity for voluntary fields like organ donor status," he said. "I have no desire to control that additional information."

As with the cost justification, Hockey argues the smartcard will streamline existing processes in an environment where each year 500,000 Medicare cards go missing, and 600,000 people are turned away from Centrelink because of lack of identity.

"That's why we need to have photo to ensure the person is in fact the person," he said.

"Virtually every interaction with government has your signature but, shock horror, we will have your signature on the smartcard! This is not an Australia card [and] people will be provided with technology-neutral protections."

Hockey said it's not rocket science to suggest the Access Card may represent the most significant reduction in red tape of all time.

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