page highlights concepts for making sense of identity
and service cards, registers and identifiers.
It covers -
is complemented by discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
government data collections and registers, identity crime,
vetting and biometrics.
Contemporary debate about card schemes has been vexed
because of disagreement about key concepts, the emotive
nature of some claims, the unavailability of some information
and the unwillingness of some participants to argue on
the basis of information rather than assertion.
Proponents and opponents for example use (and on occasion
consciously misuse) the term 'identity card' in different
ways. The Howard Government in promoting the 2006 government
services Access Card
has claimed that it is a 'service card' rather than an
identity card. The Human Services Minister asserted in
February 2007 that it would be an "anti-ID card".
Critics have responded that the Access Card will have
the same functionality as the Australia Card, a proposal
abandoned during the late 1980s, and will indeed be a
mandatory 'identity card' with attributes of an internal
Disagreement is unsurprising given -
as different interests seek to reinforce constituencies
and to persuade or neutralise other constituencies
investment in particular positions, with some opposition
to card schemes for example embodying a broader hostility
to 'globalisation' or modernity and support for those
schemes embodying a sometimes misplaced faith in technological
solutions to social problems
inadequacy of much of the published information, which
forces analysts to take some statements on faith or
rely on inference
in statements by government ministers, senior officials
and third parties
fluidity of concepts such as 'identity', 'privacy',
'trust' and 'security'.
also reflects confusion and ignorance of existing public
and private data collection and data analysis activity.
Much of the confusion centres on misunderstandings about
the basis of card schemes. It is common to encounter claims
that schemes are unprecedented,
are somehow un-Australian or have no counterparts
in other liberal democracies.
It is also common to encounter claims that a new database
will replace a plethora of existing databases or that
large amounts of sensitive personal information will reside
on a bit of plastic
rather than being held separately with a link to that
identity and identifiers
'Identity', like love and virtue, is a contested notion.
No one has a single all-purpose identity that is definitive
in all contexts and at all times. One of the more intuitive
criticisms of identity cards indeed is encapsulated by
the statement that "I'm a person, not a number or
a fingerprint, not just where I shop or where I work".
In considering what constitutes identity (explored in
more detail elsewhere on this site, in for example the
discussions of identity crime, privacy and nationality)
theorists such as Ian Hacking have argued that it is most
effective to discuss identifiers - innate and otherwise
- rather than to seek to reduce an existence to a sort
of identikit photo.
Identifiers can be innate, unique and unchanging physical
characteristics, such as fingerprints and DNA. They may
be physical but subject to change, through for example
aging or through gender reassignment surgery.
Identifiers can be assigned by the state or by nongovernment
organisations, for example an identity number that can
be embodied in an identity card and recorded in a register
for statistical enumeration (so many dead souls in Bialystock
or Boggabri) or other purposes, the scarlet letter worn
by Hester Prynne or the 'F' for 'Felon' burnt into the
skin of some pre-industrial criminals. An individual may
receive multiple identifiers. Some, including identifiers
of fundamental importance such as nationality, can be
withdrawn or disputed.
Identity can be chose - established - by the individual,
through for example that person's career path, choice
of associates, self-description in particular contexts
('Accountant', 'Methodist', 'Gay').
Identity may be determined through vetting
and identity referencing processes. It can also be determined
through tools such as biometrics,
which seek to re-identify an innate characteristic and
match that information with a record.
Some advocates praise identity cards as an effective solution
to a range of problems (including terrorism, welfare fraud
and perimeter security). Others damn identity cards as
antithetical to democratic values, ineffective or otherwise
undesirable. It is thus worthwhile asking what we mean
by 'identity card' at the national level or on a more
In general use an identity card is simply a document -
typically small enough to fit in a contemporary wallet
but in the past often larger (for example with the same
dimensions as a passport) - that provides some proof of
the bearer's identity. It might be issued by a government
agency or by a nongovernment entity. Someone walking through
an Australian central business district at lunchtime will
thus encounter a range of ID cards, of varying garishness,
hanging round the necks and on the belts of officeworkers,
retailers, couriers, students, cleaners and other people
whose occupations require some identification.
An identity card might feature a photograph. It might
include an RFID tag, a barcode
or a magnetic stripe. It might be 'smart', ie feature
a microcircuit that interacts with perimeter security
devices (eg enables physical access to a facility or electronic
access to a standalone computer or network) or more broadly
houses information (for example a medical record or even
a rechargeable electronic wallet).
Official identity cards - issued to government agents
and to ordinary citizens/residents - predate the internet
and even photography.
In the context of debate about the Australia Card and
the government services Access Card people have often
referred to a 'national identity card'. Surprisingly,
the characteristics of such a card have rarely been specified.
It appears that most people envisage a national identity
card as one that
is issued by a government agency to all adults
identifies the individual (and thus for example includes
the person's name, birth date and an identity number)
a photograph of the individual
be carried by the individual when in public
be produced on demand for scrutiny by law enforcement
personnel and other officials
the primary proof of identity necessary to provision
of services to the individual and dependents
allows comprehensive surveillance of the individual.
about the desirability of such a card (and whether particular
attributes are viable, for example whether it would be
a meaningful weapon in a 'war upon terror' and should
be characterised as a 'security card') differ widely.
Some liberal democratic nations use non-mandatory national
Such identity card schemes are sometimes contrasted with
what have variously been characterised as 'welfare cards',
'service/s cards' and 'entitlement cards'.
Those cards may be issued by public or private sector
organisations, and have been for at least a century. They
may have the same appearance and similar functionality
to identity cards.
That is unremarkable, as their rationale is indeed to
identify the bearer (and in some instances the bearer's
dependents). The identification is the basis for providing
medical, income support or other services.
Many Australians, for example, have Medicare cards as
part of the national health services regime. Some pensioners
have one or more pensioner-specific entitlement cards,
enabling access to transport and other services at a special
rate. Some people have a collection of cards, reflecting
issue by different agencies and in relation to different
Service cards are typically not promoted as a primary
proof of identity document but in practice are recognised
as having some value for identity referencing. Together
with documents such as official copies of birth certificates
they can often thus be bundled for the purposes of '100
Government agencies have traditionally formally recognised
the existence of individuals, their attributes and relationships
through inclusion of information on registers. Information
in different registers might indicate that someone was
born on a particular date, owns a specific parcel of land,
has certain educational attainments and authorisation
to practice a particular profession, or has been convicted
of particular offences.
The diversity of government functions, history and institutional
imperatives mean that much registration is not centralised.
Individual agencies instead maintain their own registers,
although there is often substantial sharing of information
- online and otherwise - and verification of a particular
claim or other matter will often involve reference to
Registers form the basis for most card schemes, ie a register
will underlie a national identity card (listing who has
a card), another register will underlie the card issued
as part of a particular income support program, a third
register will underlie a separate income support program
and so forth. Government registers typically have an explicit
statutory basis, ie are formally established by an Act
of parliament and are described in that enactment.
We have discussed the coverage and derivation of national
and state/territory registers here.
Registers can be conceptualised as a variety of databases.
A database is a collection of data, nowadays typically
in an electronic format and often on a very large scale.
It may comprise a basic listing. It may instead comprise
very detailed records regarding particular entities, in
different formats and searchable in different ways.
Collections of information maintained by the national
and state/territory governments, highlighted here,
for example include such things as
notes regarding welfare recipients
the medical records of individuals
made to pensioners
made to health providers
reported income of taxpayers.
may be self-contained or associated with external metadata
in the form of a register of names and other identifiers).
Information may be abstracted from one or more databases
for analysis (eg to determine whether a health service
provider or health service recipient has engaged in fraud).
Information from one database may be matched with that
another for identity verification or other purposes. One
rationale for such matching is that some information in
databases is incorrect, whether through unintentional
error during 'capture', misrepresentation or the passage
Sociologist Oscar Gandy famously articulated concerns
regarding the 'panoptic sort', in which government agencies
and their private sector counterparts would draw information
from disparate sources to identify attributes of individuals.
That identification would enable categorisation whole
populations on the basis of age, income, wealth, mental
status, physical fitness, gender, location, name, educational
attainment, purchasing patterns, sexual affinity ...
Literature about surveillance and identity schemes prior
to the 1970s often centred on the image of a central registry
(in paper or electronic formats), a maleficent spider
at the centre of a web. Contemporary technology has, however,
dispensed with the need for such administrative centralisation
and for the discrete comprehensive dossier that covers
every aspect of the data subject's existence.
Rather than the spider we can instead characterise much
surveillance as a sort of digital pointillism, with a
picture of the individual being composed of thousands
of spots that in isolation mean little and that are derived
from separate databases, separate identifiers and transactions.
Put together they offer an image, however blurry, of an
The challenge for many people in debate about the Access
Card and other pervasive identity schemes is to move beyond
simplistic solutions - often concerned with 'ownership'
of the card or the dossier - and to grapple with concerns
regarding what spots are 'captured', how they are assembled
and who sees them (in isolation or together).
Australia's national Constitution,
contrary to claims in some online fora, does not explicitly
prohibit a national identity card or explicitly authorise
such a card.
As the following page of this profile notes, a variety
of identity schemes have instead been authorised by legislation
made under the powers in that Constitution. State/territory
governments have similarly developed identity schemes
on the basis of individual enactments. Some of these schemes
- notably driver licencing - require that the bearer of
the identity document carry the document in some public
contexts (eg driving) and provide the document to on request
to law enforcement officials (eg traffic police), with
penalties for noncompliance.
It is also worth noting that the national Constitution,
like the state/territory constitutions, do not provide
an absolute right of anonymity. Citizens and residents
can be required to identify themselves, whether in accessing
government services, engaging in particular activities
or as a condition for entry to private premises (eg opening
a bank account or visiting a nightclub) or to assist law
next page (precursors)