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section heading icon     futures

This page considers the future of national identification schemes in Australia.

It covers -

section marker icon     introduction

Establishment of the TFN and federal privacy legislation was followed by -

  • sporadic suggestions for a general purpose national identity registration scheme and for purpose-specific identity cards (eg a photo ID card for Victorians under that state's Working With Children legislation)
  • implementation of purpose-specific cards at the federal level (eg the Maritime Security Card)
  • moves towards enhancement of existing schemes (eg trials of Medicare smart cards as part of the MediConnect/HealthConnect national health registry vision)
  • establishment of a range of registers (eg the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register) and agencies (eg tertiary students enrolled in education, community and public health and human service courses require clearance by the federal CrimTrac agency)
  • criticisms that the federal privacy regime was being vitiated through under-resourcing of the Privacy Commissioner's Office (or merely a complaisant attitude to perceived breaches) and introduction of national security legislation

Calls for a discrete, multi-purpose national identity card recurred in the mid 1990s, after 9/11 and in 2005. Proponents within government, business, community groups and solution vendors typically encompassed a photo ID card - of varying degrees of 'smartness' - that would

  • serve as a tool against terrorists or even "prevent terrorism"
  • disrupt use of false and multiple identities that a UK government report claimed "are used by organised criminals and in a third of terrorist-related activity"
  • underpin action against illegal working and immigration abuse
  • ensure public services are used only by those with a proper entitlement
  • complement advanced passports, with advocates in the UK for example claiming that a smart ID card would ensure British citizens were able to travel freely across Europe.

Given claims that Australian government consideration of national identity schemes is a diversion to distract community attention from embarrassments such as the DIMIA scandal it is worth noting that most governments have reviewed or indeed implemented schemes during that period.

A 2004 Canadian government report (PDF) thus asked

  • What are the existing problems with Canadian identity documents, particularly 'foundation' documents such as birth certificates?
  • What should be the guiding principles for a national strategy on identity documents?
  • Which level(s) of government should be responsible?
  • Do we need to create a new national identity card, or can the security features of existing “foundation” documents be strengthened?
  • What has been the experience of other countries with national identity cards?
  • Should everyone in Canada be required to carry a secure identity document at all times?  Or should the identity document be voluntary for some (eg Canadian citizens and permanent residents) and mandatory for others (eg refugee claimants, foreign students, or other temporary residents)?
  • What information should be imbedded in the cards, who should be able to access that information, should the information be stored centrally, and what safeguards would be required to prevent misuse? 
  • What technologies are available for enhancing document security and what issues are raised by the use of particular technologies, such as biometrics? 
  • How much would a national identity card cost?  What savings would be realized by introducing such a card (eg reduction in crime related to identity theft)?

section marker icon     what do people want?

What do consumers want in relation to national identity registers? Contrary to some assertions by identity card proponents and critics, the answers are not clear.

That uncertainty reflects the range of stances - including people who equate a card (any card) with 'the mark of the Beast' or with 'late-fordist industrial discipline', people who are familiar with digital technologies and sensitised to privacy/security concerns, peers with the same familiarity but without that sensitisation or with a different assessment of benefits, people in search of 'silver bullet' solutions to complex problems.

Uncertainty also reflects situational factors. Attitudes change when individuals are faced by a medical emergency, terrorism or 'stranger danger' - although assessments of risk may be quite different to realities.

There are few large-scale independent studies about Australian consumer attitudes to privacy per se, to medical privacy or to perceptions of risks. As with people in most advanced economies, there appears to be a substantial difference between stated values and behaviour.

Survey respondents and focus group participants thus typically say that their privacy is precious and should be protected. Many however

  • while expressing concern about a public sector 'big brother' are unaware of (or indifferent to) data collection and use by the private sector, including large-scale data profiling by credit reference businesses
  • have assimilated identity verification requirements centred on the 100 Point scheme under the Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988
  • are prepared to commoditise their personal information for a trivial reward, for example merely the opportunity to win a small prize
  • differentiate between their privacy (sacred) and that of celebrities or stigmatised groups (eg welfare recipients, those labelled as engaged in welfare fraud, those perceived as likely terrorists)
  • want comprehensive action against identity fraud yet are reluctant to take responsibility for their own actions in identity management
  • overestimate malpractice in the handling of health services information while underestimating opportunities for abuse of that data.

It is thus possible to get substantially different answers from a particular group. Claims that "most Australians" welcome/oppose particular initiatives should be treated with caution. "Community outrage" over the Australia Card was not evident in introduction of the Tax File number.

A 2003 Canadian survey claimed that

the vast majority of Canadians view the fraudulent use of identification documents as a problem in Canada. This perception appears to be the key driver of support for a new ID card and for the use of biometrics by the federal government. Opposition is higher for a mandatory card than for a voluntary card but overall results are consistent, with those in favour outnumbering opponents by a margin of 2:1. While those who support the introduction of a card far outnumber opponents, those opposed seem more entrenched in their views. Survey data demonstrates that exposure to pro/con arguments on biometrics had a significant impact on support for the idea of a national ID card. Although the majority of Canadian businesses support the idea of ID cards, this support is largely tepid and highly malleable. As in the general population survey, they admit very limited awareness of biometric technology. Yet, when supplied a definition, are largely supportive of its use to control identity fraud, illegal migration and abuse of government services. In fact, 4 in 5 believe it is likely all Canadians will have at least one biometric ID somewhere to verify their identity by the end of the decade.

section marker icon     a possible future

Earlier in this profile we suggested that the 1980s Australia Card proposals failed through lack of political will, disagreement within the federal bureaucracy and poor marketing in the face of campaigning by an articulate and energetic advocacy group that shaped the terms of debate but did not necessarily represent the views of most of the community.

That experience provides one model for the future.

2005 saw

  • conflicting statements by federal bureaucrats about the shape of a potential national card scheme, with confusion about "a master database"
  • public disagreement among federal ministers about the need for and technical viability of what was tagged by critics as 'Australia Card II'
  • claims by the Queensland Premier and others that the Card would have a major impact on terrorism and fraud
  • counterclaims that the Card would be wholly without benefits, would facilitate identity theft and would represent "East Germany on steroids"
  • moves by state governments to strengthen occupational registers and introduce new photo ID cards and registration requirements in particular sectors (eg for anyone working with children)
  • little exposure in the mass media of underlying questions about the shape of privacy legislation, existing national security frameworks, spent convictions and private sector data collection/handling

In 2005 we accordingly commented that it was likely that a discrete 'Australia Card II' would not get off the ground, with several functions instead being fulfilled by a second generation health card that is linked to a scaled-down version of the federal government's ambitious HealthConnect/MediConnect scheme (including the UHI).

Bruce Arnold's discussion of the 2006 Access Card in Privacy Law Bulletin questioned the Human Services Minister's fatuous claim that the new card would be "a smartcard not an ID card", one protected by an "anti-ID card law".

Information will continue to be collected and aggregated by different government agencies (potentially facilitated through further exclusions in the 1988 Privacy Act and associated legislation). We can expect an expansion of services such as CrimTrac and state sex offender registers, along with new services such as AusCheck.

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version of February 2007
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