This page considers some questions that we have received
from journalists, businesses and civil society advocates
regarding the new Australian government services Access
It covers -
national identity card?
road to 1984?
life on a chip?
file to bind them, one file to rule them all?
missing from the debate
the anti-Identity Card?
Q: You highlighted a Minister's comment that
the Access Card is the "anti-Identity Card".
Is it a stealth version of the Australia Card?
A: The notion of an anti-Identity Card (implying
some sort of anonymity?) is not very useful. Such quips
are one reason why Ministers aren't let out without minders.
It is clear from the proposed legislation that the Access
Card will be used by a range of government agencies to
identify an individual in relation to delivery of services
and receipt of entitlements. Identification is the key
function of the Card: the basis for the government's plan
to spend over a billion dollars and thereby save a large
amount of money through reduced fraud.
Graham Greenleaf suggested that if it waddles like a duck
and quacks like a duck it's the Australia Card Mark II
- same rationale, same functionality, just different feathers
(arguably what you'd expect given the evolution of data
processing and networking over the past 20 years). The
Access Card is essentially the Australia Card Lite - a
national identifier scheme covering most of the population,
used by a range of government agencies and coopted by
private sector interests.
We have suggested that a crucial concern is the privacy
regime wrapped around the Card and the Register - covering
use by the public and private sectors - rather than whether
the Card exists.
a national identity card?
Q: Why does the government keep saying that the
Access Card is not and never will be a national identity
A: Put simply - political prudence and disagreement about
Characterising the card as a services access card rather
than a national identity card lulls some anxieties about
"an Orwellian future" and underpins marketing
that promotes the image of a government concerned to provide
entitlements to voters while restricting abuses by the
"underserving" or "criminal".
People disagree about what constitutes a national identity
card. The Access Card is not a national identity card
in the sense of an official identity document that must
be carried by all adults and must be displayed on request
by a range of officials (and private sector agents of
government). You won't have to carry it. There are restrictions
on requirements for its display. In principle if you do
not interact with government - because for example you
have chosen to forgo access to services - you can avoid
having/using the card. That is analogous to the feasibility
of operating without a Tax File Number and other identifiers.
In practice, of course, it is going to serve as the de
facto national proof of identity document in the
private sector and will be a one of a bundle of identifiers
used by the national government.
the road to 1984
Q: Aren't identity cards and access cards only
found in totalitarian states? Are we on the road to 1984?
A: Soundbites about 1984 are useful in polemic
but less valuable for understanding.
It is clear that several liberal democratic nations (including
states such as The Netherlands that are considered by
some to be more "progressive" or "liberal"
than Australia) require residents to identify themselves
through official proof of identity cards and use cards
for accessing government services. We have suggested that
cards as such are of less concern than ensuring that abuses
do not take place and that there is timely, effective
redress if abuses occur.
It is also important to recognise that notions of 'identity'
and verification are somewhat fluid.
Many Australians currently have medicare cards, credit
cards, drivers licenses and tax file numbers. Several
million people, correctly or otherwise, have become accustomed
to use drivers licences as a primary form of proof of
identity in private sector transactions - the photo licence
is the de facto national identity document, albeit
one that offers a fuzzy identifier and that generally
is not systematically captured in data networks
life on a chip
Q: Is all the information on the card? Won't
that assist identity thieves?
A: There is recurrent angst - and some scaremongering
- based on perceptions that an individual's life history
(including financial and medical information) will appear
on the card in a form that can be readily copied and read
by anyone with access to the bit of plastic. Such perceptions
have been fed by government kite-flying (including suggestions
that the card will include an electronic wallet for private
purchases) and by media speculation.
As of early 2007 the Card appears to be an identifier
- in essence metadata
linked to information held in separate databases - rather
than an independent and comprehensive repository of information
that can easily extracted. The 'smartness' in the "smartcard"
relates to the digital signature and biometric photo,
along with the scope for linking to external repositories,
not in any major knowledge found on the chip (eg a copy
of the individual's tax file or criminal record).
As noted below, forgery of the Card will occur and will
be undetected in some private transactions, in the same
way that abuses occur with what purport to be legitimate
drivers licences and other identity documents.
one file to bind them, one file to rule them all
Q: Why won't there be a central database, holding
all the information about everyone?
A: There are a number of reasons: technological,
political and institutional. It is not necessary to keep
all data (and all data processing) on one box.
In practice it is easier to maintain a range of databases
under the auspices of several government agencies, with
information being exchanged by those agencies and datamining
conducted by/for those agencies.
Politically that is attractive, offsetting community anxieties
about 'Big Brother's Database'.
Institutionally it is attractive because separate bureaucratic
empires in Canberra - competing for status, funds, continuity
- do not have to surrender control.
Q: You say that the card will be forged. Is this
A: Any system of identification, particularly
large-scale systems involving financial transactions among
individuals without personal relationships, can be subverted.
One government rationale for the Access Card is that existing
cards are being misused. Public and private sector reports
indicate that key proof of identity documents such as
drivers licences are forged
or obtained illicitly.
We should expect some forgery of cards; creating a plausible
fake is not a difficult task and for some people the potential
rewards will outweigh potential penalties. Detecting fakes
will be easy if they are used for interaction with government
and its agents (eg through online realtime verification)
but difficult if the card is used merely as the primary
form of photo ID in private sector transactions.
Questions are thus how much misuse and with what consequences?
privacy and displacement
Q: In an article for Privacy Law Bulletin
you were scathing about the Access Card privacy report.
A: 1980s debate about the Australia Card was
significant as a catalyst for development of federal privacy
law in Australia. Unfortunately, about the
Q: How is the Card going to work? Are the cost
A: Given the nature of some transactions and the resources
at the government's disposal the Card clearly will work.
We would rephrase the question as whether it will work
well, whether there are better mechanisms for reducing
fraud or achieving other goals?
The answers to those questions are challenging. That is
because there is disagreement about the prevalence and
significance of fraud against the Commonwealth. Details
of the Access Card system architecture have not been published.
That architecture will morph over time because of legislative
changes, different corporate objectives and the need to
fix past failures.
It is clear from recurrent reports by the Australian National
Audit Office and Senate committees that large scale information
technology projects within government are particularly
challenging. A range of major projects - in aggregate
several billion dollars - have failed to achieve initial
objectives and have been so extensively redefined as to
Activity in the health services sector has been particularly
troubled, with recurrent rebadging on initiatives and
abandonment of trials. That is consistent with major problems
in e-Health and welfare services in the UK and Canada.
Q: You've been dismissive
of 'End Times' warnings about RFIDs. What about the Access
A: We are critical of claims that RFID
technologies represent the 'Mark of the Beast' (a theological
position that is, of course, not accepted by all faiths),
as proponents of such claims typically evade consideration
of broader privacy concerns.
Shouldn't people, for example, be just as concerned about
government mechanisms such as the TFN and about large
scale data mining by commercial interests. (One reader
of this page naughtily commented that the Prince of Darkness
presumably takes advice from McKinsey & Co and outsources
some data collection work to the private sector).
Q: Are there alternatives to a national Access
A: A disappointing aspect of debate about the
Access Card is that there has been little community consideration
of different mechanisms for achievement of goals, or indeed
of identification of those goals.
There may well have been comprehensive, fully informed
and deeply reasoned analysis within government of alternatives
to the Access Card. Unfortunately that analysis is not
clear. The history of the Australia Card appears to indicate
that policy was made on the run, much analysis was ad
hoc and that the development process was driven by the
ambitions of particular agencies. Conflicting statements
about the Access Card suggest that little has changed.
Arguably it would be possible to reduce fraud through
existing mechanisms (or, more radically, to accept claims
that there has not been an explosive growth in fraud or
that a certain level of abuse is acceptable when offset
against the cost of new mechanisms).
Will the Card fundamentally reduce identity theft that
does not involve fraudulent access to government services?
The answer appears to be no.
Q: How much will the Access Card scheme cost?
A: No one really knows, although it will almost
certainly cost more than the figures announced in 2006
and early 2007.
One reason is that there's disagreement about identifying
costs (eg only initial hardware costs for government?).
Proponents typically exclude costs to the private sector
of enrolment in the Register. Government is wary about
publishing details of architectures that allow meaningful
analysis by independent observers. As noted above, the
track record of forecasting by insiders is poor.
Another reason is that few analysts provide whole of lifecycle
costs - spending on ongoing rectification and major fixes
is often buried in 'maintenance costs' and improvements.
With a collaborative project such as the Access Card some
costs will be attributed to activity within individual
participating agencies; it is unlikely that we will see
a comprehensive ongoing dissection of costs.
A third reason is that costs for such projects have typically
blown out (and systems have underperformed), both through
poor specification and project management and through
the project creep that bedevils big government information
technology projects that have to accommodate the evolution
of legislation and ongoing administrative restructuring.
Q: In an interview you described development
of the Card as like nailing jelly to a wall. Why does
it seem so wobbly and why the politicians talking out
of both sides of their mouths?
A: As with the Australia Card, it is common to
see claims that inconsistencies are deliberate and even
attributable to some sort of conspiracy. There is nothing
like chatter about national identity cards to entice the
alfoil beanie demographic to go emo.
We tend to attribute inconsistency to opportunism on the
part of some ministers, ineptitude and disagreement about
what the Card is meant to do and how it is to be implemented.
Lack of transparency inhibits effective analysis within
government as well as by outsiders.