Smart cards, smart strategy
- By Diane Frank
- Oct 16, 2000
Spanish Ministry of Labor and Social Services
For years, Europe has been the front-runner in the use of smart cards, far
ahead of the United States in both policy and application. While most U.S.
agencies are only now moving to give all their employees smart cards, Spain,
for example, has almost every citizen using smart cards to access government
services and information.
Countries such as Spain have the cultural advantage of being able to
replace citizens' national identity cards with smart cards, an approach
the United States cannot hope to imitate in the face of privacy advocates'
objections. Most European countries use only a single smart-card vendor — which sidesteps the problem of interoperability. But U.S. agencies are
making strides in their own efforts to use smart cards while working in
a more complex environment where users can choose any card available commercially.
In general, smart cards are plastic cards about the size of a credit
card that usually use an embedded microprocessor chip to store information
and security software.
The Spanish smart card project is being run out of the Ministry of Labor
and Social Affairs, which handles almost all of the benefits collection
and payment functions of the Spanish government. Because the benefits are
tied into the health system, the smart card also covers functions under
the National and Regional Institutes of Health.
Together, the two systems process just over $72 million annually, and
the government has spent more than $47 million with the goal of providing
all 40 million working citizens of Spain with smart cards.
Those smart cards are the key for citizens to access almost all of their
employment, benefits and health information through kiosks located in Social
Security offices around the country. They are also being used in health
centers by doctors and employees to access citizens' information on local-area
networks set up by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in conjunction
with the Ministry of Health.
Citizens sign up for smart cards when they next come into a Social Security
office, which happens often because every function until now had to be performed
in person. The cards hold general information such as address, age and telephone
Because of the way the Spanish health care system works, the ministry
decided not to issue cards to young people until they start working and
have benefits through their employers, said Santos Manes Guerras, director
of the ministry's collection control center, which maintains the systems.
One reason Spain has been able to provide every citizen with a smart
card is that the country is using a single vendor for its technology, an
approach the United States has rejected in favor of providing both agencies
and citizens with a choice. But the option to choose makes it much harder
to begin providing smart cards to agency employees, much less every citizen,
said John Moore, chairman of the smart card users group at the U.S. General
"We're behind in terms of our starting position, but it has been important
to us to develop smart cards that are interoperable and fit into our more
complex networking environment," he said. "The U.S. is really trying to
do something that has not been attempted by these other countries."
Most U.S. agencies like GSA and the Defense Department are taking the
first step by issuing smart cards to their own employees. The Transportation
Department, on the other hand, is issuing cards to vendors and using that
as a test bed before issuing cards to the public.
Meanwhile, the Spanish effort has made a big difference in how the Ministry
of Labor and Social Affairs interacts with citizens. The ministry had to
completely realign its services along functional lines so that citizens
would not have to figure out what department within the ministry they needed
to access — much the same way the U.S. government is working to realign
its information in the FirstGov Web portal.
And although right now only the kiosks and local-area networks are in
use in Spain, the demand for services in both areas has been so high that
the ministries are working quickly to add electronic signatures to the smart
cards to allow citizens to securely access information and services via
the Internet, Guerras said.