(by Sanjay Swamy, CEO, mChek)

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.

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.

Six-years later, having experienced the telecom revolution in India, and I feel India would be missing a trick by simply cloning the SSN. I still cringe whenever my bank or brokerage firm or telco in the US asks me “What’s your 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 anytime-anywhere 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 traveling 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? Or what if I lose my phone? 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 other common objection is “what happens if I lose my mobile phone”? Well – in that case you are no worse off than if you lose your ID card – in fact the fact that it is “network-enabled” simply means it is that much easier to prevent people from misusing the card because a pin or fingerprint or voice authentication can be used to augment the security.

A few FAQ’s I will answer in advance:

— No, we are not talking about the government relying on the telco for Know Your Customer (KYC)
— No, there is no risk of your data being visible to the Telco – just like the Telco cannot read your email on Blackberry or credit card data on an HTTPS session
— No, there is no risk of someone misusing the data because it will be protected and require authentication before being used
— No, there is no restriction on changing your mobile number or telco
— Yes, your fingerprint or photograph can also be stored on the SIM card
— No, we are not compromising security in any way

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.

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.

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. We will only get this opportunity once – and we must explore the pros and cons of the SIM card vs. the dedicated, static smart-card.

Let’s leap-frog!

(c) Sanjay Swamy. The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not represent the views of MediaNama or its editorial staff.

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