Thailand Tries Again To Roll Out National ID

The Thai government plans to start rolling out its chip-based national ID card this fall, although it has yet to finalize a contract with vendors, sources say.

The project has been beset by delays in rollout schedules and complaints from advocacy groups and opposition politicians, who charge the government with seeking to use the card and expanded electronic databases to infringe on the privacy rights of citizens. The ID card will store digital fingerprints on citizens and could eventually support several applications, including storing health insurance and medical data, passport information and cryptographic keys to secure e-government transactions.

The government had hoped to start rolling out the 32-kilobyte Java Card to most of Thailand's 65 million people earlier this year, but the Information and Communications Technology Ministry nullified results of the first round of bidding, held last March. France-based smart card vendor Axalto, along with its Thai consortium partner, Chan Wanich Security Printing Co., won the online-auction-style bid with a low price of 109 baht (US$2.75) per card. The ministry later declared the price too high, with one official insisting the government would pay no more than 90 baht ($2.17).

This summer, it disqualified Axalto from a second round of bidding because the vendor expressed doubts it could supply the first 12 million cards by a reported deadline of January 2005. Axalto later told the government it could meet the deadline, as well as the 90 baht or somewhat lower price. But a consortium that includes Switzerland-based chip supplier STMicroelectronics won the second bid, offering a rock-bottom 74 baht ($1.78) card price, sources say. Its smart card subsidiary Incard could supply the cards, suggest sources.

That low price could only support a generic smart card chip, not one designed for ID cards, contends Philippe David, Axalto's general manager for e-transaction cards in Asia. He also notes Axalto was not the only vendor stating reservations about meeting the accelerated rollout schedule. ST declined comment. Axalto has taken on a new partner as it continues to vie for the supply contract, Data Products Toppan Forms of Bangkok, co-owned by Toppan Printing of Japan.

Java Card Remains
While Thai officials had reportedly loosened some of their requirements for the card to bring in a lower price, they kept Java Card software in the specifications. This will allow the government to more easily add applications to cards after they are issued.

Sources say ST had not signed the supply contract as of late August. But that could come soon because Thai officials want to use the ID cards to track Islamic extremists they blame for a spate of bombings and other violence in Thailand's southern provinces bordering Malaysia, where officials believe the militants are taking refuge.

Thai Interior Minister Bhokin Bhalakula was quoted in recent press reports as pledging the government would issue 1.5 million smart ID cards to residents in three southern provinces by October. Malaysia, while denying it is harboring the insurgents, agreed to exchange information with Thai authorities gleaned from its own chip-based national ID. Malaysia's multiapplication card also stores cardholders' fingerprints.

Terrorism aside, the planned Thai ID card has come under attack from some politicians, as well as human rights groups and other critics because of what they believe are insufficient data protection laws and other privacy safeguards. The fears stem from government plans to combine fingerprint biometrics with multiapplication smart cards and expanded electronic databases.

One local supporter of the smart card project, however, does not see what the fuss is about. He notes the government has been compiling a database on citizens and residents for 20 years, including voluminous fingerprint files. It currently issues a mandatory magnetic stripe ID card.

Whether the Thai government meets its new and ambitious rollout schedule for the national ID smart card remains to be seen. But the delays and controversy surrounding the card illustrate why projects of this type rarely progress either smoothly or quickly. -Dan Balaban, reporting from Bangkok