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‘Watch out for fraudsters with biometric cards’

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Ministry of the People and Social Development plans to launch its biometric smart cards in July. They claimed the card was designed to eliminate identity theft and prevent fraud. But at least one reputable company which supplies these cards says the Government needs to watch out for fraudsters.



The head of the company, which has been producing cards for public and private institutions for the past five years, said if the back-end of the ministry’s system was not secured, “anyone with system knowledge can use a smart card reader and software to pull information from the cards and copy to another or even create a database and sell to anyone interested.” In other words, there was no “foolproof system,” even with the best of technology available.


The director of the company, who preferred anonymity for fear of being blacklisted, said no system had been tried and tested and a computer whiz with a software, reader and minimal training could reproduce the data on the cards. “The biggest challenge the ministry can face is a very high possibility of identity theft,” the director said. Can the State snoop on people's business transactions? 


The director said if the magnetic strip was used to load money and the card used in a manner similar to a Linx card, then people’s buying habits could be monitored. On the flip side, the director said the advantages of the card would be a three-way positive identity match, including a biometric finger print, facial and signature verification, while the most important component of the card would be information management security through encryption. 


“Additionally, there should be multiple security features on the card, for example, microtext UV printing, [and a] customised hologram. In addition to the chip, perhaps a QR code could be used as well in case the chip fails. The QR code would act as a backup,” the director explained.



cards on a phased basis

Next month, the card, also called “The People’s Card,” will be launched and distributed on a phased basis to 175,000 clients, comprising recipients of food cards, public assistance, disability grants, general assistance grants, and pensions. Containing a smart chip (micro-computer processor) on the front and a magnetic strip on the back, the card comes with unique biometric data, including finger prints, to provide precise identity authentication which would reduce fraud and improve data security. 


National director of the ministry’s Targeted Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, Inshan Mohammed, on Wednesday assured the public that the cards would be 99.9 per cent tamper proof and there would be no room for identity theft.



“The whole issue of identity theft is that payments would not go through unless you are the person whose fingerprint matches what is on the chip.”Mohammed said the cards would be connected to the ATM at commercial banks to make it easier for pensioners to withdraw their monthly pensions, using a PIN number. Card holders would also be able to make bill payments. “It will create significant savings for the ministry and reduce fraud,” Mohammed said.


Asked which company was awarded the contract and how much this would cost taxpayers, Mohammed said the contract which was put in the hands of the Central Tenders Board was advertised locally and internationally last year. “The contract was given out to a consortium of local and foreign firms,” Mohammed said, though he stopped short of naming the suppliers. Sunday Guardian was told that a card retails for between $25 and $40.



‘Ministry can monitor people’s purchases’

However, communications manager at the ministry, Dzifa Job, said the biometric system had proved very successful in preventing duplication of people’s identity. “This system will reduce the number of duplications that we have now in the system,” Job said. Asked if a client could opt out of the system, Job said sooner or later everyone would have to use the card.


Questioned about the monitoring of a client’s business transactions, Job said the ministry would observe the country’s Data Protection Laws in keeping each client’s personal information private. “The card will not be GPS equipped and would not be able to track anyone’s location, but can allow the ministry to monitor the purchases clients make,” Job said. Contacted on Thursday, former minister of the people Dr Glenn Ramadharsingh refused comment. “I am no longer at the ministry,” he said.



PNM, ILP, MSJ comment

Public Relations Officer of the People’s National Movement, Faris Al-Rawi, queried if the card would have policing capacity to ensure “that infringement of the law does not happen.” Al-Rawi said he also wondered what had happened to the Data Protection Act, which has not been fully proclaimed. “We have asked about the inconsistencies in the act because sensitive data of this type are being given out to the public without any explanation.”


He also queried the proclamation of the Electronic Transaction Act, “in particular, provisions which have not been proclaimed to deal with consumer fraud and protection, which the Government has been silent on.” Al-Rawi said cards of a similar nature, which are distributed abroad, have mechanisms for protection. 



“But we can’t say the same here.” Political leader of the Independent Liberal Party, Lyndira Oudit, said she did not see problems arising if the card was governed by appropriate laws. “It is not a bad system if it is well-thought out.” Oudit said the Government should have had public consultations with social grant recipients before issuing a contract. Leader of the Movement for Social Justice, David Abdulah, said technology could be very intrusive “and one may not even know what the motive is.”


Abdulah anticipated there would be more questions than answers surrounding the card.


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