Becoming e-certifiable

Von Stefan Hammond

Within the tiny Functional Constituency of our Computerworld Hong Kong editorial team, we share both techno-fun and cyberpain. For example, editor Chee Sing Chan recently volunteered as guinea pig for Microsoft?s Service Pack 2, a data-heavy upgrade aimed at zapping digital nasties on XP machines.The jury?s still out on Chee?s SP2 reconfig, but in return, I volunteered for the Hong Kong government?s ?e-cert? program (a digital certificate for Hong Kong residents that?s valid for three years, with a cost-free first year). My laminated, peeling Hong Kong ID card needed upgrading to a ?smart? ID card anyway, so I figured I?d go the full Monty and get e-certified.Brandishing my new ID card -- complete with embedded gilded chip -- I rocked up at Hong Kong?s central post office ready to become part of the government?s Digital 21 Initiative and do my part as a HKSAR Netizen. After all, it?s free.Well, sort of. For an additional HK$10 (US$1.30), said a brochure featuring Hong Kong film stars Joe Ma and Ada Choi, I could have an additional copy of my e-cert put on a ?floppy disk.? This would entitle me to authorize a single copy of a Net browser (presumably Microsoft?s Internet Explorer) on a single computer. Ada?s slender index finger pointed gleefully skyward on the brochure, pitching the government?s plan. Floppy or not?Unfortunately for the Hong Kong Post, I haven?t owned a floppy drive-equipped computer since the last century. Like most of you, I transfer files either by e-mail or by USB ?keychain memory? -- those handy megabyte-stuffed flash-memory devices. An offer based on technology I don?t own didn?t inspire me to rip a crisp HK$10 note out of my pocket and present it to the clerk.Said clerk was polite, but a bit confused by the gear set up to load the mystical e-cert onto my smart ID card. He inserted his staff ID into a card-reader, inserted my ID into another card-reader and, after some head-scratching and consultation with a supervisor, conjured a screenfull of correct data (including my preferred e-mail address for e-cert use) and asked me to hit on a keypad to confirm. I was then asked to sign a form and given a sealed envelope with an eight-digit PIN. Another screenfull of data appeared with reference numbers and a serial number for my brand-new e-cert. And with that, the voodoo was concluded, my card returned and safely stashed away for future use.As I exited the post office I wondered just what those uses might be. After all, there?s a long list of card-readers posted next to the e-cert window, but all these devices require Microsoft?s Windows operating system, which I don?t use on my home system. One Hong Kong government site which seems to raise the hackles of everyone I talk to -- ESDlife, which handles functions from the booking of squash courts to the purchase of government publications -- coughs like a tubercular patient when fed anything other than -- Internet Explorer. Firefox? Safari? Browsers that don?t inspire security SNAFUs popping up like fiendish jack-in-the-boxes every other day? Forget about it.While the Hong Kong government is making a sincere effort to turn their Netizens into e-cert-toting cyberjockeys, many rough edges remain. And diffusing that technology into everyday life means ensuring the maximum number of users trust e-cert transactions at the maximum number of outlets. Of course the non-Windows crowd is tiny, but that doesn?t mean governments have the right to exclude them: While you don?t see many Renaults and Citroëns on Hong Kong roads, would it make sense for the government to arbitrarily refuse the issuance of license plates for such French-made vehicles?No. Our elected officials would be excoriated, and rightfully so. Hong Kong residents who own and operate Gallic autos are taxpayers -- so too are individuals and enterprises which use, maintain and sell Macintosh, Linux and UNIX operating systems. After all, many Linux e-mail clients support the S/MIME encryption suggested on the e-cert registration form, as does Mail -- the built-in e-mail client for Mac OS X. Shouldn?t our government demonstrate the same cooperative spirit, especially with an IT initiative they are actively promoting?The Hong Kong SAR government is properly lauded for providing prompt and effective service for its citizens, in a city-state boasting a laissez-faire economy fueled by tax rates that citizens of Western Europe and the USA envy. The website says that as part of its 2001 Digital 21 Strategy, ?e-government, as measured by revenue collection and e-procurement, will grow significantly in this decade.? Loading e-certs onto smart cards may be an important first step, but if what we?re being given is a key with few doors to unlock, the renewal rate a year hence (when the government starts tacking on e-cert fees) may be less than spectacular.