National Government ID Project – Leapfrog or Catch-up? SIM card vs Smart Card?

[Guest article by Sanjay Swamy, CEO of mChek. Sanjay shares a strong perspective/insight on Indian govt’s National ID project and urges Nandan Nilekani to evaluate SIM card vs. Smart cards.]

Imagine India as a country where 100% of the population is uniquely identified, has connectivity for telecom services and also has access to structured financial services.

Imagine secure, personalized, anytime-anywhere healthcare services, government disbursements, loan disbursements and repayments! Imagine – the SIM card can become the government issued voter ID card – and one could even “vote” from the convenience of one’s mobile phone.

The appointment of Nandan Nilekani to head the National Government ID project finally indicates that the Government of India is serious about getting the project right. One finally has the confidence that this is one Government project that will be done right.

Having lived for several years in the US and experienced the seamless access to government and private services through the one common link – the Social Security Number (SSN) – and when I returned to India six years ago, I felt India needed to simply clone the US’s SSN system.

Mobiles in India are the Unique Identifiers
Mobiles in India are the Unique Identifiers

Six-years later, having experienced the telecom revolution in India, and I feel India would be missing a trick by simply cloning the SSN. While the move to a Government issued Smart-Card may be a big step forward, the trick for India would be to engage the Government and Telecom Operators in a public-private partnership that delivers a SIM card to 100% of the population. Technology-wise a SIM card is a Smart-Card – but it is network-enabled. Secure, two-way communications are only possible in a SIM card, not with a Smart-Card.

One largely unknown concept is application-specific security domains that can be created on SIM cards. This means that the information travelling in that domain, while using the telecom network, is encrypted and secured – and cannot be tampered with. Think of it as an end-to-end VPN between your SIM card and the “Application” Service provider. In mChek’s case, this is currently used for financial services. A similar application could easily be developed/adapted for Government services.

Naysayers to this approach will be quick to point out – what if one doesn’t have a mobile? Or what if there is no network connectivity? Well, in such cases, one simply needs to share a mobile to insert the SIM card, no different from a “smart-card reader”. A $20 mobile becomes a Smart-Card reader – rather than a $100 proprietary Smart-Card reader. In other words, we are no worse off – and probably still much better off handing everyone a SIM card rather than a Smart-Card.

The Government ID project can play a far more significant role by leveraging the Telecom reach – the project can also be executed much more efficiently and effectively, than any other country has done.

Nandan – you have our complete support – we all know you will do the right thing for India. I hope you will examine the SIM and how its advantages far outweigh the traditional smart-card approach in this landmark project.

Let’s leap-frog!

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