Locally-designed, researched and developed smart card technology – to suit South African needs and demands – is coming to fruition.
A smart card is a credit card-sized piece of plastic embedded with computer chips that can securely store information and provide a myriad of other services.
However, smart cards come in different forms and cater for various needs. A health smart card, for instance, will provide patient information that is accurate, portable and updateable, and facilitate access to patient information in emergency situations by first responders, when the patient is not able to relay the critical information.
These intelligent cards are being rolled out in numerous South African private and public sectors, with many more requiring the intelligent authentication tokens, such as a health card, national ID, driver’s licence and access control. CSIR smart card technologist Dawie Joubert is hatching a plan to develop smart card technology with multi-applications to serve simultaneously as an eDriver’s licence, eHealth card, ePassport and eIdentity Document.
Joubert works in a research group comprising highly-skilled young South Africans working in information security at the CSIR. This research group is one of the competency areas at CSIR Modelling and Digital Science (MDS); it focuses on processes, methodologies and techniques used to protect information from unauthorised access. The major drive towards establishing this competency revolves around the need to develop a local capability on information security systems.
Joubert’s work focuses on the national identity system specifications. “We intend to foster local opportunities for industry and reduce the international dependency on proprietary smart cards and terminal technologies by providing open standards,” says Joubert. “We are trying to put all these cards into one intelligent card and make sure that it is sustainable and secure, and cannot be duplicated or tampered with. The number of benefits this has is huge.”
He reckons that South Africa needs this technology because of the paper-based trust culture. “Computers minimise human error and that is where smart card technologies come in,” says Joubert. He adds that the lack of identity authentication saw America’s health care system losing over 60 billion dollars between 2005 and 2009. “With our smart cards, we are trying to minimise incidents such as individuals finding themselves married to complete strangers, and other forms of identity theft,” he says.
A whiz kid
Joubert grew up on a citrus farm in Boshoek, a farming community between Rustenburg and Sun City. He wrote his first computer programme at the age of seven. “This was not rocket science,” he says. “I used to type in my name and the computer would respond by saying ‘HELLO DAWIE’”. In what was then Std 6, Joubert recalls that he holds a record of accidentally crashing the system of an Internet service provider – Gemscape –for the longest period of time. He says he was playing with hacker tools when he accidentally brought down a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on the unsuspecting Internet service provider – an attempt to make a computer resource unavailable to its intended users – which caused hundreds of thousands of significantly sized e-mails to be dropped at the Internet service providers' door. “At that time [early 1990s], e-mail and DNS servers were not yet protected against such attacks,” he says, adding that he soon realised that Internet access was a privilege when his father terminated the Internet access service due to the incident.
Although he did not know it then, Joubert would soon graduate from being a nosy teenager bitten by the Internet bug, to someone who puts his knowledge of computers to good use after that incident. After high school, Joubert took a gap year and went to the United Kingdom (UK) where he worked as a bartender through a working holiday visa. He headed home at the end of that same year and enrolled at Damelin Private College for A+ and N+ courses – computer hardware and software and networking courses.
While he was busy with his studies at Damelin, he accessed the website of the then Pretoria Technikon (now Tshwane University of Technology) and was intrigued by the course in Intelligent Industrial Systems which is a specialisation field in Information and Communication Technology (ICT). He enrolled the following year and eventually obtained a Bachelor of Technology (B-Tech) degree.
“This was a new course and I was among the first few people to obtain a B-Tech degree in this area,” remembers Joubert. “We covered topics such as digital electronics, programming, systems engineering, games programming, simulation software, process control, hardware design and artificial intelligence.”
After graduating, he went to work for Techso (Pty) Ltd, where he was involved in the designing of traffic control centres, surveillance systems used in monitoring traffic flow on highways and macro surveillance, electronic fare collection systems, and other Intelligent Transportation System engineering tasks. Other areas that he worked in while with his former employer included systems engineering tasks for managing public transport infrastructure using technology to make it more efficient, setting up wireless systems for the South African National Road Agency Limited (SANRAL) and Department of Transport, and electronic fee collection that also included tolling.
Joubert obtained a cum laude for his Master of Technology (M Tech) degree which was based upon a successful smart card project done for the National Department of Transport.“I enjoyed the technical aspects of the job and working with industry experts in various fields,” he says, “I didn’t want to go into management at this early age, and I left to join the CSIR to further my technical expertise in all things systems engineering.”
At CSIR MDS
At his former employer, according to Joubert, he gained experience in sustainable systems engineering, which enables the product to continue functioning sustainably in different environments. “I also learnt to focus on client requirements and the perception towards your product, something that I am trying to advocate here at MDS, because even if you have the best product on the market and the perception towards you, your support, or your product is considered wanting, you have failed,” he concludes.
News contributed by Biffy Van Rooyen, CSIR Strategic Communications and Stakeholder Relations