This page considers some arguments for and against an
It covers -
have highlighted questions about the government services
Access Card later
in this profile.
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 ...
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)
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.
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
understanding of overseas practice (eg identity card
schemes are in use in nations that most Australians
would regard as democratic and liberal)
awareness of the plethora of existing databases and
identification practices (eg government registers,
commercial credit reference
services and reliance on the vehicle driver licence)
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
recognition that law or industry codes of practice are
insufficient (eg the importance of appropriately resourcing
privacy watchdogs and such watchdogs actively addressing
On occasion it reflects
conspiracist (and overly simplistic) view of government
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").
Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) laments that
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
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
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.
somewhat bizarrely commented
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.
about cards has reflected broader agendas and values.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
registration schemes do not, in fact, involve physical
marking of individuals (no tell-tale signs burnt into
adherence to dogma tends to be selective (most Australians
do not observe the various restrictions identified in
of 'dehumanisation' have been less vocal about mechanisms
such as driver licensing, tax file numbers, credit card
numbers and private sector profiling
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
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.
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
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
'universal service identifier'
repository of summary or full medical records, tied
to databases that allow individuals to 'own' their medical
mechanism for holding/generating digital signatures
for e-prescribing/dispensing transactions
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).
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
APF warned that
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
official responded to that comment by saying
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
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
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 -
& 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
next page (costs)