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100 Points

Forgery &


section heading icon     claims

This page considers some arguments for and against an Australia Card.

It covers -

  • introduction - making sense of arguments about identity card schemes
  • what card are we talking about
  • terrorism - a silver bullet in the war against terror or merely a building block?
  • migration and refugee management
  • the 'mark of the beast' and other intangibles
  • improved service delivery - health services and other benefits
  • the hacker menace - a security disaster waiting to happen?
  • the surveillance state - are national registers necessarily anti-democratic or as mundane as your driver's licence
  • preventing or enabling identity theft
  • garbage in, dead souls out? - smart cards with dirty information
  • uncosted, unaffordable, unsustainable?
  • brickbats and bouquets - critiques of 'Australia Card II' and its counterparts

We have highlighted questions about the government services Access Card later in this profile.

section marker icon     introduction

In preceding pages of this profile we have suggested that there is a need for an informed and temperate community discussion of objectives, mechanisms and issues.

That discussion would be broader than much past debate, which has been characterised by hyperbole ...

  • government Ministers, officials, vendors and pundits making problematical claims that a scheme will comprehensively address a range of ills (prevent terrorism, prevent identity theft, solve refugee challenges, stop welfare fraud)
  • critics claiming that a scheme will instead result in an "orwellian future" marked by profound loss of civil liberties through abuse by governments, businesses and criminals.

That polemic is probably inevitable, as different advocates seek to make a case (and to justify their existence).

However it is often not conducive to understanding about likely outcomes and risks. It is also often not based on -

  • an understanding of overseas practice (eg identity card schemes are in use in nations that most Australians would regard as democratic and liberal)
  • an awareness of the plethora of existing databases and identification practices (eg government registers, commercial credit reference services and reliance on the vehicle driver licence)
  • acknowledgement of the range of community attitudes about privacy (with some individuals, for example, proclaiming the sacredness of their privacy but willingly trading it for a chance to win a small prize or receive some other financial benefit)
  • a recognition that law or industry codes of practice are insufficient (eg the importance of appropriately resourcing privacy watchdogs and such watchdogs actively addressing their responsibilities)

On occasion it reflects

  • a conspiracist (and overly simplistic) view of government and
  • an arrogance within government agencies and private sector organisations regarding objectives or community concerns ("we have to make choices for people who don't or won't understand").

The Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) laments that

The politicians concerned have very little understanding of the business processes and technologies involved in identification and identity authentication. To be fair, it's a complicated topic, and politicians are generalists, whose job is to stay in government rather than to actually solve social problems. But there's plenty of guidance available to them if they took the trouble to do some research before they opened their mouths.

The result is that, when politicians start a media campaign for identification schemes as an antidote to terrorism, they're actually failing their public responsibilities. They're trying to make it look as if something's being done to protect the public, when that's not the case.

Part of the problem is that politicians who raise the prospect of a national identification scheme do so in order to divert attention from the real problems that confront the country, and their parties.

Solutions vendor Peter Solomon forecast in 2004 that a UK-style national identification ID card will be implemented in stages over the next few years, initially through introduction of a new health card

Once we have the health card in place, we can add Medicare details, tax file number, driver's licence and police data, superannuation details, all aspects of social security – the basis of a truly multifunction card. It will rapidly become an apolitical issue, and it will not be a very difficult task to convince society on the question of civil liberty.

Solomon somewhat bizarrely commented

We have got nothing to hide in this country. The only ones who might fear a national ID scheme are those who have something to hide. Almost all the information relevant for a national ID card is already in the broader government databank. This includes criminal records, driver's licence and all related infringements, Medicare records, social security details – whatever a government might want to put into the memory of an ID card smart-chip, really. The civil liberty argument is a lot of hype.

Disagreement about cards has reflected broader agendas and values. The APF problematically it commented that

... we have to undermine the hold that terrorists have, by reaching out to and demonstrating tolerance for people of all beliefs and ethnic origins. The Australian government is abjectly failing in that responsibility

section marker icon     what card/scheme are we talking about?

Making sense of identity registration schemes is inhibited by uncertainty about what they involve.

Much of the debate in Australia and overseas has featured people talking over the top of each other - or merely attempting to - about different visions of a card or identity scheme. Many of those people do not seem to be talking about the same card. As we noted in the preceding page of this profile, much depends on what information is held on a card and how it is used.

In 2005 it is unclear whether a particular card/scheme will feature biometrics. Will any biometrics embody best practice, thereby addressing concerns about biometrics theft? Will it be a 'dumb' card (name, birthdate, photo, identity number)? Will its use/misuse by the private sector be circumscribed by effective legislation? Will it be restricted to citizens or encompass everyone in Australia? Will it supersede the various government services and function-specific cards (eg the proposed Victorian Working With Children photo ID card)? Will regiustration be mandatory but personal use of the card voluntary?

section marker icon     terrorism and other crime

If discussion of ID cards during the 1980s centred on the 'war against welfare cheats' a rationale in 2005 has been cards as a weapon in the 'war on terror'.

Australian and overseas proponents have characterised a national identication scheme (particularly if complemented by a biometric-based passport system, large-scale data mining and international exchange of information between public/private sector travel databases) as likely to prevent terrorism. The basis of that prevention is unclear. Some enthusiasts have spoken of a deterrent effect, a notion that does not appear particularly applicable to suicide bombers but may influence some commercial criminals. Critics have claimed that "ID Cards won't stop terrorism", which is best addressed by action against "root causes" such as poverty or distress over modernisation.

Bruce Schneier argued that ID checks simply don't make sense.

Everyone has an ID. Even the 9/11 terrorists had IDs. What we want is to somehow check intention; is the person going to do something bad? But we can't do that, so we check IDs instead. It's a complete waste of time and money, and does absolutely nothing to make us safer.

In practice a national registration scheme as such will not prevent terrorism. However, it may serve as a building block for a security regime that is consistent with and underpins liberal democratic values. It might, for example, enable the identification of associates after an act of terror (like a CCTV network it has forensic value) and if used properly might be a tool in restricting access to particular facilities.

section marker icon     migration and refugee management

In Australia discussion of cards during 2005 has included their use in managing migrants/refugees, particularly after exposure of systemic failures within the Department of Immigration Multicultural & Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) which has inadvertantly or wilfully 'lost' several citizens who were in its custody.

Any card scheme would not necessarily address malpractice within DIMIA or another agency. A national registration scheme might however have been of assistance in those circumstances. Much depends on the particular scheme. A dumb card would have been of little assistance if the bearer disposed of that card and either chose (or was unable) to provide correct information. It is thus correct to say that

the Cards won't stop immigration bungles. A national identification scheme would not have done anything to prevent the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau. Ms Rau could have used any number of existing items of evidence of identity. She chose not to. So she wouldn't have been carrying her 'New Australia' Card either.

However, a biometric-based card would in principle have enabled rapid determination of the bearer, with or without the card (eg the individual's fingerprint, retina or other details would be available on a reference database)

The APF welcomed the suggestion in the 2005 Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Immigration Detention of Cornelia Rau (Palmer Report, PDF) for a national missing persons bureau; Card enthusiasts would presumably see value in an appropriately managed registration of people before they go missing so that they are more easily found once they are lost by ill-intentioned or merely inept bureaucrats.

section marker icon     the 'mark of the beast' and other intangibles

The extent to which opposition to identity schemes embodies a deeper anxiety about technology or modernity is unclear.

Arguments against national schemes have included
characterisation of the card as the mechanism foretold in Revelations (the 'Mark of the Beast'), that more broadly registration is "dehumanising" (with individuals being "reduced to numbers") and that it is conducive to ethnic profiling or other versions of the 'panoptic sort' or what Marcuse characterised as the "totally administered society ... comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom".

Skeptics have responded that

  • national registration schemes do not, in fact, involve physical marking of individuals (no tell-tale signs burnt into the forehead)
  • adherence to dogma tends to be selective (most Australians do not observe the various restrictions identified in Leviticus)
  • proponents of 'dehumanisation' have been less vocal about mechanisms such as driver licensing, tax file numbers, credit card numbers and private sector profiling
  • a national ID card might indeed reduce ethnic profiling.

Other scheme opponents have variously claimed that the card is necessarily hostile, erosive of individual rights and will increase the power of government.

A more nuanced view is that identification schemes - like much technology - can be erosive of individual autonomy and should accordingly be actively managed through appropriate legislation and operational protocols. In a democracy concerns about government power can be effectively addressed through community expectations about the responsibility of politicians, officials and citizens. They can also be addressed through an informed free press and an independent judiciary.

In the EU the European Court on Human Rights has accordingly found that ID cards per se and requirements to carry a card are not in themselves breaches of human rights.

section marker icon     improved service delivery

Advocates of the 1980s Australia Card argued that it would minimise welfare and other fraud against the federal government and would underpin enhanced delivery of services. The service delivery claim has recurred since establishment of the Tax File Number system; as noted on the preceding page of this profile it has formed one basis for work on the MediConnect/HealthConnect national health databases and the associated Medicare smart card, albeit not very smart.

Visions of how a national identity card would assist improved delivery of government services have differed, reflecting disagreements within government and within the private sector about objectives, priorities and mechanisms. They have included
the card as

  • a 'universal service identifier'
  • a repository of summary or full medical records, tied to databases that allow individuals to 'own' their medical histories
  • a mechanism for holding/generating digital signatures for e-prescribing/dispensing transactions

Others have suggested that a card that features biometrics or tamper-resistant photo ID, is networked for real-time validation, and is used within a strong Bill of Rights or other framework that addresses concerns about privacy and redress, would enable movement away from the '100 Point' identity verification system. Australians are currently required to provide documentation to the value of 100 points in opening bank accounts, starting a phone account or other transactions.

That requirement is problematical given that it involves scrutiny - often cursory and uninformed - of a range of documents from passports to credit cards, birth certificates, driver licences, electricity and telephone bills. Some of that documentation is easily forged or subverted (eg people assume an identity by illicitly gaining the legitimate birth certificate of a dead child).

section marker icon     the hacker menace

A common criticism of identity registration schemes is that they are dependent on a "central database" that is vulnerable to hacking. The APF succinctly warns that

There are enormous security risks in a national identification scheme. A centralised system has weaknesses more easily exploited by people intent on terrorism, illegal immigration or crime. It means only one database needs to be hacked into, or only one official needs to be bribed, to create a new 'fake identity', or steal someone else's 'real identity'.

As we have discussed elsewhere on this site, the 'hacker menace' may in fact be overstated. Much identity theft is attributable to low-tech abuse of paper documentation (eg dumpster diving or interception of postal mail), skimming of credit cards and pretexting or other social engineering (thieves eliciting information through polite, plausible questions). Much is also attributable to the incompetence of major organisations that have lost unencrypted computer tapes and laptops with major collections of personal information. (Examples are highlighted here.)

In practice an Australian national identity scheme is likely to involve a card that embodies several identifiers (eg a name, birthdate, unique identity number and a biometric) and a range of government electronic registers, rather than a single database. The challenge for identity scheme proponents is to persuade people that the architecture is secure and more broadly that any unauthorised access/use will be readily detected and addressed through operational protocols, legislation and vigorous enforcement action.

Proponents note that Australians - happily or otherwise - have placed their trust in the Taxation Office, other agencies, banks and credit card companies. Others argue that discrete interlinked databases - rather than the single master file envisaged by some opponents - reduces the likelihood of unauthorised access to all information about an individual and unauthorised creation of large-scale data sets.

Critics respond that increasing the complexity of any scheme increases the likelihood of structural failure or subversion: the benefits of an ID regime do not outweigh the risks and the cost of armour-plating.

section marker icon     the surveillance state

Identity schemes have been attacked as both a foundation for and legitimation of the 'surveillance state', with pervasive surveillance by government agencies of citizens and others accompanied by ongoing erosion of civil liberties and suppression of dissent.

UK advocacy group No2ID warns that "An ID scheme will mean your most intimate details will be controlled by the government forever". Former Australian federal Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton huffed in July 2005 that

We could have an identity card where we are required to produce it day or night at the whim of any policeman or official and where it is constantly telling the world what you're doing and is creating data logs

The APF warned that

A national identification scheme means greater government intrusion into our private lives. Our freedoms would be harmed because the power of public servants would be greatly increased. This would restrict our willingness to express our personalities the way we'd like to. It would make us all less prepared to take risks, and hence reduce our innovation. Because our economic growth is dependent on our cleverness, over time our standard of living would be lowered. Very importantly, we'd feel less free to express political opinions, so our participation in democratic processes would be much-reduced.

Others have simply dismissed an Australia Card as 'un-australian', something that would only be found in a "fascist state" where there are "police with guns and truncheons".

That dismissal, while resonant in parts of the community, has been questioned by those who note that identity cards and registers are an accepted part of life in liberal democratic states such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland and that Australians for several generations have used (or misused) driver licenses as the de facto national identity document.

Pessimists have more bleakly claimed that government agencies already possess those "most intimate details" or numbers (eg in the UK each schoolchild has a Unique Pupil Number), provoking the response that much of the information held by government agencies is garbage and that in a democracy it is possible to circumscribe government data collection/use.

In concurring with such responses we note the importance of circumscribing illicit and licit use by the private sector of identifiers on a government-issued card. In practice citizens and others are unlikely to be able to opt out of a national identity card/register. It is important to minimise misuse by nongovernment organisations - eg businesses drawing on a national identity number in easily building comprehensive, accurate profiles of consumers - particularly if consumers are not aware of that activity and have not assented to it).

section marker icon     preventing or enabling identity crime

Much advocacy, pro and con, has featured claims about identity crime - with a card/register being characterised as preventing identity theft or instead facilitating it. In practice a card will not prevent all ID offences but conversely will not necessarily lead to armageddon.

Much depends on the features of the particular scheme (eg inclusion of a copy-resistant photo and networked biometric identifier on a card). Much depends on how the card/scheme is perceived: it is potentially valuable if treated with caution, potentially dangerous if assumed to be authoritative and always incontrovertible. Varying degrees of smartness might inhibit forgery and validate particular uses, although real-time validation over a network for example poses concerns regarding privacy, cost and infrastructure availability.

section marker icon     garbage in, dead souls out?

The effectiveness of any national registration scheme is dependent on the quality of information when individuals are initially enrolled and the maintenance of that information thereafter.

In principle it is possible to ensure high levels of accuracy. In practice accuracy is determined by the source of the data and how information is handled, so that some schemes are afflicted by "garbage in, garbage out" and undermined by false/misread 'breeder documents' such as birth certificates.

That has led some observers to argue that establishment of any national identity card scheme must be accompanied by a systematic clean-up of birth/death/marriage databases and other registers. Critics have noted that 13% of a sample of birth certificates examined by Westpac bank and the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages were problematical. The Australian Health Insurance Commission has acknowledged that it has an excess of some 0.5 milllion 'identities': 2.5% of its database consists of dead souls.

On the other hand the UK Cabinet Office, questioning some ID theft hyperbole, commented that 1,484 detected fraudulent passport applications represented 0.03% of total passport applications and that two samples of National Health Service transactions put false identities at 0.26% and 0.22%.

The major stumbling block for a biometric-based scheme appears to be initial capture of biometric data - one contact frets that "grannies and skateboard kids aren't going to be happy with fingerprint or retina scans" - and validating source information from driver licences, birth certificates or other documents in a way that is sufficiently rigorous without involving inordinate costs, intrusion and delays.

section marker icon     uncosted, unaffordable, unsustainable

In the absence of details about the basis of a national identity card scheme, its implementation and ongoing maintenance it is difficult to meaningfully assess costs and benefits.

Australian experience - and work overseas, such as the LSE studies noted on the preceding page of this profile - suggest that national identity registration schemes are not cheap to develop and maintain. Official and business forecasts about likely costs are often overly optimistic and affected by ongoing project creep; in looking at projects in Europe, Australia and North America during 2004 we found that real costs were typically over ten times initial projections.

Disagreements about the shape of card schemes has unsurprisingly resulted in claims that they are uncosted (or indeed uncostable), unaffordable and unsustainable.

The APF somewhat cruelly commented in 2005 that

If politicians get their way, and a project is started to examine a national identification scheme, multi-millions of tax-payers' dollars will be wasted, as public servants prepare briefs for a scheme that will never be implemented. It will never be implemented, because, once the public realises what it involves, the project will be scrapped.

One official responded to that comment by saying

of course we need to examine the scheme: that's what government is about. We would be derelict if we didn't examine.

A more searching critique might involve questioning the ability of governments to properly manage identity registration projects, given poor performance over a generation in specifying, developing and implementing very large-scale ICT projects.

Ultimately the business case for a national registration scheme is unclear: implementation is likely to be driven by intangibles rather than a hard-headed cost/benefit analysis.

section marker icon     brickbats and bouquets

The APF site features concise arguments against the Card. Other advocacy organisations, of varying credibility, identify and evaluate arguments pro and con.

These include -

  • UK No2ID & the Database State - "Say NO to ID, compulsory fingerprinting, new taxes, red tape for all. Say YES to privacy and real security" - and the Privacy International UK ID Card page


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version of November 2005
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics