Taiwan’s Smart ID Plan in Doubt, as Local Officials Get Cold Feet

By Steven Crook 

Taiwan’s plan to begin trials of its long-planned but heavily criticized national electronic identification (eID) cards next month has been thrown into doubt by a municipal government’s reluctance. 

The pilot effort would use volunteers in Hsinchu, a city of 451,000 nearly 45 miles southwest of Taipei. 

But the Hsinchu City Government said that, because it prioritized citizens’ rights and information security, if Taiwan’s central government was unable to convince it that the eID system was safe, it was “inclined to suspend the trial.” 

The Hsinchu City Government’s decision was reported Saturday by United Daily News, a major Taiwanese newspaper. 

Then, the following day, Apple Daily — the tabloid sister newspaper of the Hong Kong Apple Daily — reported that Taiwan’s Interior Ministry said the central government would “continue to communicate with Hsinchu City Government” on the issue. 

Required Since 1954

Taiwanese adults have been required to apply for a standard ID document since 1954. The information on it has varied over the years. 

Until 1986, the year before martial law and the ban on opposition political parties were lifted, the document included a holder’s blood type and education level. 

ID cards, issued under the Household Registration Act and displaying information held by the household registration system, must be shown when registering a marriage or opening a bank account. 

Without a card, renting an apartment or checking into a hotel is difficult. 

Because the household registration system is administered locally, the about-face by the Hsinchu City Government would throw a spanner in the works.

Two other local governments, New Taipei City and Penghu County, previously withdrew from the pilot program. 

“The eID chip must be placed within a few centimeters of the reader, and the person must agree to enter their PIN, before any data can be read.”

Taiwan Interior Ministry on individual movements not being tracked by authorities.

The eID cards are to be introduced nationwide in July. The roll-out, originally scheduled for October, was postponed because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the delivery of equipment from Europe. 

When the eID card system is implemented fully, “those unwilling to receive the chip ID cards because they have doubts about information security and privacy, will face the invalidation of their old ID card, and not be able to exercise their right to vote or obtain a driver’s license,” the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR) said in a statement posted on its website last month.

TAHR officials declined to elaborate further to Digital Privacy News.

Interior Ministry’s Position

But a statement on the Interior Ministry’s website, issued the month before in response to complaints of procedural and privacy issues by civil-society organizations, stressed that every aspect of the eID program had been planned carefully and had been handled in accordance with the law. 

The ministry’s statement also said that the new card would carry less data than the current “sixth-generation” chipless laminated plastic ID, and that its anti-counterfeiting characteristics would be more robust.  

The ministry’s statement added that data on the chip would be encrypted and protected by the holder’s PIN code. 

Furthermore, adding the functions of the Citizen Digital Certificate — a nonmandatory chip card that millions of Taiwanese use to access government services online — would be optional. 

Data-Protection Promises

Public- and private-sector entities that use personal data taken from ID cards are regulated by the Personal Data Protection Act. 

Citizens’ freedom to choose whether to use the various functions of the card’s chip will protect their “privacy and information autonomy better than the (current) paper version,” the statement said. 

A September 2019 statement on the ministry’s website, responding to lawmakers’ concerns, sought to reassure citizens that the RFID function of eID cards would not make it possible for the authorities to track their movements. 

“The eID chip must be placed within a few centimeters of the reader, and the person must agree to enter their PIN, before any data can be read,” the statement read.

Beyond a short statement on Nov. 6 — in which it stressed its commitment to privacy, information security and adherence to the law — the Interior Ministry did not respond to Digital Privacy News requests for further comment.

Questioning Statements 

But TAHR disputed several of the ministry’s assertions. 

With the Judicial Reform Foundation (JRF), cybersecurity specialists and other privacy activists, TAHR filed what it calls a “last-resort” lawsuit against the ministry last month.

In a Nov. 2 statement, the day the action was filed, TAHR said the ministry had pushed ahead with its trial and implementation schedule, while ignoring warnings from experts and while refusing to amend or formulate laws to reduce privacy and information-security risks. 

TAHR and JRF called on the ministry to retain the option of chipless ID cards, and to take “people’s privacy and information autonomy seriously.” 

“Those unwilling to receive the chip ID cards because they have doubts about information security and privacy, will … not be able to exercise their right to vote or obtain a driver’s license.”

Taiwan Association for Human Rights.

JRF lawyers, backed by scholars at the Information Law Center — part of Academic Sinica, Taiwan’s national research academy — said the ministry’s actions could violate the Household Registration Act by infringing on citizens’ rights guaranteed by the constitution and by exposing them to information-security risks. 

Ministry Skips Proceeding

The Interior Ministry, however, did not participate in the lawsuit’s preliminary proceedings on Dec. 8. 

Ministry officials claimed the court had agreed to postpone the session because their representative could not attend. 

TAHR disputed this, citing local news reports that the proceedings went ahead.

According to TAHR, the ministry has yet to confirm precisely what information would be shown on the ID card or what would be held in its chip.  

“We invite the Interior Ministry to share details of the trial, eID usage instructions, privacy-risk instructions, and other related documents,” the THAR statement said. 

“At the same time, the ministry should explain to the public: By what metrics will the pilot scheme be judged, and if the results are not as expected, will the eID plan be recalled or revised?” 

Steven Crook is a writer in Taiwan.