A digital Pandora's box

Print edition : August 12, 2005

The extra capacity added to the new smart card for car-owners gives no added benefits but has pushed up the cost.

IN a panel discussion at the recent Smart Card Tech-India 2005 conference, with the theme "National ID Card - The Foundation of Trust in e-Governance", Prakash Kumar, Secretary, Information Technology and Administration Reforms, Government of Delhi, cautioned against "vendor-driven technologies". To many members of the audience, it was obvious what he was referring to. It was the legacy of the choice of an inappropriate technology made by the Delhi administration of 2003 in the introduction of IT in the road transport sector. Today, he finds himself in the embarrassing situation of having to implement it even though he disapproves of it.

An important component of the much-hyped induction of IT in the transport sector in many States - as part of the government's nationwide e-governance initiative - is the smart card-based driving licence and vehicle registration certificate (VRC). But, as the process of implementing this scheme gets under way in many States, one is also witnessing a number of petitions in the courts against the choice and induction of the technology. And in many instances, the cases have been dragged into the Supreme Court.

As regards the technology, the main contentious issue relates to the respective governments' invitation for bids for the supply of simple microprocessor-based smart cards (with a minimum memory of 4 KB) for driving licences, and an optical smart card which has an optical strip (of memory 1.5 MB or more) in addition to the microprocessor chip (of 4 KB memory or more) for VRCs. Petitioners have contended that this is in violation of the guidelines issued by the Central Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) under the Central Motor Vehicles Act and associated Rules. Since these only required that driving licences and VRCs should have a minimum 4 kb memory on a microprocessor chip, the States had no legal authority to insist upon an additional feature like an optical strip.

The basic guidelines issued by the Centre were: uniformity across the country; readability throughout the country; inter-operability across States; and non-proprietary or open-source technology that would allow indigenous modification or development. Operationally, these translated into conformity to ISO standards (ISO-7816-1, 2, 3), which ensured uniformity and non-proprietary technology; standardised hand-held terminals, which ensured readability everywhere; and compliance to open source Smart Card Operating System for Transport Applications (SCOSTA) software, based on ISO-7816-4, 8, 9 standards, which ensured inter-operability.

SCOSTA was developed by Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, based on specifications drawn up by an apex committee set up in 2000 by the MoRTH - that included experts from the National Informatics Centre (NIC) of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MCIT) and IIT-Kanpur, and representatives of industry. The SCOSTA specifications were established to ensure that every card used for a driving licence or a VRC is certified by a set of tests designated by the NIC and IIT-K to ensure the usability of the smart card with the same specifications by all States.

The origin of the controversy can be traced to the MoRTH's gazette notification GSR 513(E) of August 10, 2004, which set out the specifications for smart cards as amendments to the Central Motor Vehicle Rules. The footnote to the notification provided room for (deliberate) arbitrariness and manipulation in the States' interpretation of the Rules. There is, as a result, more than a hint of corruption in the implementation of the programme in some States. But more importantly, the cards do not conform to the basic guidelines.

It is instructive to go over the history of this footnote to understand how the government machinery functions when implementing off-the-shelf technologies in public schemes requiring large volumes of a given product. Indeed, like the case of the smart card in the transport sector, there are apparently other projects under the e-governance initiative, which bear evidence of rather dubious implementation.

The smart card Apex Committee produced its first report, titled "National Standard for the Driving Licence and Vehicle Registration (Version 1.0)", in January 2001. Based on this, the MoRTH issued Version 1.0 guidelines. Following this, several States issued tenders for smart cards and some, like Gujarat, had already implemented the scheme in part. However, these were at variance with the guidelines mentioned above. Some of these, for example, had invited bids for the microprocessor cum optical strip smart card. This was apparently because of the lack of precise understanding of the technicalities by State administrations, coupled with the entry of multiple technologies into the country.

To rectify the situation and in view of the technological developments, Version 2.0 of the standards were evolved both for back-end computerisation and for driving licences and VRCs. The detailed specifications of SCOSTA, as well as the software `Saathi' and `Vahan' (developed by the NIC), for back-end systems, formed part of the Version 2.0 guidelines. These were issued in October 2001, following which, in fact, some States withdrew their tender notifications.

The Apex Committee had considered various available technologies - microprocessor, integrated-circuit memory and optical memory - in detail, particularly keeping in view the security aspect as well as the volume of information to be stored. For security, a Key Management System was specified for use with SCOSTA and it was also noted that the latter two technologies are pure memory storage technologies with no key-encryption mechanism unlike the microprocessor-based smart card. Accordingly, for enhanced security the committee recommended the use of microprocessor technology (with contacts).

As regards data size, it was reckoned that the volume of information on a driving licence would be 1 kb and that on a VRC would be nearly 4 kb. The committee, therefore, added that since in driving licences and VRCs the data volume requirement is low, security considerations are paramount. It also noted that microprocessor technology existed with a memory range from 4 KB to 32 KB, and 62 KB memory was in the pipeline.

Curiously enough, the MoRTH sought to issue some amendments to the Central Motor Vehicle Rules concerning the smart card scheme for driving licences and VRCs and a draft notification (GSR 42(E)) was accordingly issued in January 2003, inviting public comments. This contained a draft version of the note (reproduced in box) and its import was essentially the same, which would virtually nullify the Apex Committee's detailed standards.

In July 2003, the MoRTH constituted an Expert Committee - which was headed by V.P. Bhatkar, Chairman, ETH Research Lab., Pune, and included M.J. Zarabi, Chairman and Managing Director, Semiconductor Complex Ltd., Chandigarh, and Veni Madhavan, a Computer Science Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore - to resolve the ambiguities arising from technology variations as well as to make appropriate recommendations on the choice of technology that was non-proprietary, easily available, and suitable for field operations and easy handling, and the cost of which would be within the fee structure prescribed under the Rules. The Expert Committee also had to look into issues arising from the draft notification.

Strangely enough, the Expert Committee chairman's report too took an open-ended position with regard to technology choice, contrary to the Apex Committee's recommendation. This was done apparently to accommodate evolving technologies, such as contact and contact-less (using wireless) `dual-interface' cards and larger storage capacity cards, such as optical strip, for multiple applications. However, Zarabi gave a dissenting note to the Chairman's report in November 2003. Veni Madhavan, however, declined to comment. But some people in the computer science community question the MoRTH's wisdom of appointing a person with private interests as the chairman of a committee on matters of public interest.

In his dissenting letter, commenting on the note in the gazette notification, Zarabi said: "The words `any other information storage technology' opens up a Pandora's box. This addition is being exploited for the backdoor entry of optical strip as part of the standard, which technology had been... discarded by the Apex Committee."

This footnote, he said, "may cascade into a serious issue of induction of proprietary technology and inter-operability issues, besides encumbering the public at large with costs attached to a monopoly source of supply and also risking the future and current implementation at the hands of a single vendor, all of which is against public policy, public interest and national security". He observed that no process of standards definition and certification procedure existed for optical strip or any other storage technology other than the microprocessor smart card.

For the same reason, he said that the report's reference to other technologies in any form would run counter to the efforts made for SCOSTA. "If a smart card and optical technology or any other medium is put together on the same card," he said, "it will lead to ambiguity as well as problems of certification by the NIC." Because, one machine readable zone (MRZ) on the card is open and certified by the NIC and other MRZ in the other medium is proprietary and patented technology, the patent being held by Drexler Corporation, U.S.A.

He pointed out that since SCOSTA specified only the standards for microprocessor, optical strip is not compliant with SCOSTA specifications. "We do not recognise optical strip cards and their use is completely unjustified," pointed out Rajat Moona, a Computer Science Professor at IIT-K who was associated with the development of SCOSTA.

The hand-held terminals and field infrastructure specified by the Apex Committee, Zarabi said, also did not support optical strips and these required special hardware, which was neither specified nor standardised thus making field operability difficult. In the case of optical strip, in fact, according to him, read and write hardware was yet to be designed for mass use.

He added that any ambiguity in the technology, if allowed, would push up the costs of the plastic card, and optical strip, being proprietary, is not available freely and is available only at higher monopolistic prices. Patent rights (USPTO No. 6390130) were held by Drexler Corp. and there are about 94 patents, which have been reserved for optical technology, making it unavailable for further indigenous development, Zarabi pointed out. The technology is licensed through Drexler's 100 per cent subsidiary, Laser Card Corporation, U.S., to various companies which only had sales rights in specified regions.

The chairman's report, of course, overruled all of Zarabi's contentions, his objection to optical strip technology, in particular. However, Bhatkar endorsed his point about proprietary technologies and said that this could be ensured by requiring that "ISO or other well recognised international standards be complied with". Accordingly, he listed a set of ISO standards, which, according to him, were applicable to optical memory cards. But the point to be emphasised is that, even if ISO standards for these were evolving and could be applied, these had not been specified for use with SCOSTA and the NIC had not evolved standardised tests for these either. More important, the issue of security of optical storage still remained and Bhatkar did not address this crucial issue.

Bhatkar, therefore, recommended not a removal of the gazetted footnote but an amendment to it to the effect that the other storage technologies must conform to the relevant ISO or other international standards. But curiously enough, Bhatkar's amendments to the footnote were ignored and Alok Rawat, Joint Secretary in the MoRTH in August 2004, issued the final notification GSR 513(E) without any reference to international standards for the optical strip. Speaking to Frontline on authorisation from Union Minister for Transport T.R. Baalu, Rawat said that the Centre had taken this step because several State governments had demanded additional capacity.

While a 32 KB or a 64 KB smart card would have easily met any additional capacity that may be required by individual States, the note has been carefully worded to defeat that very purpose. The note says: "The microprocessor chip shall not carry any other information not prescribed for the purpose." So, even if the microprocessor had enough additional memory, it could not be used for any other application that may be envisaged, say one's National ID, for which the government has already initiated a pilot project for 3.2 million people in 13 regions across the country.

So what is the huge additional capacity doing in the transport sector cards? There is little doubt that it is not benefiting the average consumer. It is in this context that the Delhi government's IT Secretary's comment on "vendor-driven technologies" acquires worrying proportions.

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