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Identity &
Identity Crime

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& Cyberspace

100 Points

Forgery &


section heading icon     identifiers

This page highlights concepts for making sense of identity and service cards, registers and identifiers.

It covers -

It is complemented by discussion elsewhere on this site regarding government data collections and registers, identity crime, vetting and biometrics.

section marker icon     introduction

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 passport.

Disagreement is unsurprising given -

  • polemic as different interests seek to reinforce constituencies and to persuade or neutralise other constituencies
  • emotional 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
  • the inadequacy of much of the published information, which forces analysts to take some statements on faith or rely on inference
  • inconsistencies in statements by government ministers, senior officials and third parties
  • the fluidity of concepts such as 'identity', 'privacy', 'trust' and 'security'.

Disagreement 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 card.

section marker icon     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.

section marker icon     identity cards

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 restricted basis.

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
  • uniquely identifies the individual (and thus for example includes the person's name, birth date and an identity number)
  • includes a photograph of the individual
  • must be carried by the individual when in public
  • must be produced on demand for scrutiny by law enforcement personnel and other officials
  • provides the primary proof of identity necessary to provision of services to the individual and dependents
  • potentially allows comprehensive surveillance of the individual.

Perceptions 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 identity cards.

section marker icon     service cards

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 programs.

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 Points' schemes.

section marker icon     registers

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 multiple registers.

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.

section marker icon     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

  • case notes regarding welfare recipients
  • the medical records of individuals
  • payments made to pensioners
  • payments made to health providers
  • the reported income of taxpayers.

Databases may be self-contained or associated with external metadata (including 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 of time.

section marker icon     digital pointillism

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 individual's identity.

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).

section marker icon     legal frameworks

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 enforcement officials.

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version of February 2007
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics