page considers the cost of national identifier and registration
It covers -
We have sometimes been asked "how much will the Australia
Card cost?", with one activist in 2005 requesting
a specific figure on a per capita basis. In practice there
can be no definitive answer to such questions. That is
for two reasons.
The first is that there is no agreement about what a future
Australia Card (or overseas counterpart) might comprise
and how it would be funded.
Would, for example, consumers be expected to make some
payment towards a standard/enhanced card (in the same
way that fees are charged for driver licences and passports)?
Would costs be bundled - critics say disguised - in government
spending on universal entitlement schemes such as an enhanced
identity/payment card for pharmaceutical benefits and
medical services? The UK government thus controversially
claimed in 2005 that there would be some 'cost recovery'
from bearers of its proposed card but that many costs
would be absorbed by using existing passport system infrastructure.
The second reason is that there is disagreement about
the identification of costs.
Some proponents for example claim that the only 'real'
cost is the price of the bit of plastic or paper. Critics,
often as disingenuously, assert that national identity
schemes necessarily cost billions without commensurate
Such assertions may not fully recognise that some costs
are sunk in data collection/processing programs that will
be conducted by government irrespective of whether a national
identifier regime is introduced.
In practice, assessing the likely cost of a national identity
card regime is akin to going on a random walk with a set
of very large numbers. The following paragraphs highlight
some costs and concerns about forecasting.
The experience of Australian and overseas governments
with recurrent problems through poor specification, major
project creep, system integration difficulties, institutional
empire building, vendor capture and tacit acceptance of
open-ended costing or 'compromises' means that some observers
accept proposals for a new card in principle but are wary
of what that regime might cost on an ongoing basis.
We have commented that one concern regarding contemporary
identification schemes is that there appear to be substantial
numbers of identity papers/cards that have either forged,
corrupted or merely improperly issued. Some people, for
example, have two drivers licences - both of which have
a correct photo but are issued to two identities. A fundamental
cost of an Australia Card scheme reflects the need to
ensure that the information on a card correctly represents
Collecting biometric information such as fingerprints
or retinal scans from all adult Australians and incorporating
that data in cards and databases is a daunting task, one
that is often understated by card enthusiasts. It would
involve, for example, physical contact between data subjects
and an official or government agent (such as a general
practitioner). That contact would be more demanding than
traditional arrangements - such as the 100
Points identity verification scheme - where a clerk
quickly scrutinised an individual's papers and compared
a face in front of the counter with a Polaroid snap. Accurate
collection of fingerprint or other identifiers would take
more than five minutes.
That data would then need to be validated if a card regime
is not to embody 'garbage in, garbage out'. The cost of
that validation to individuals is rarely quantified. The
cost to government in data collection (paying officials
and/or agents) and verification would necessarily be much
greater than current expenditure on maintaining the passport
system. Some critics in Australia and overseas have questioned
The cost of the card that embodies each individual's information
is dependent on factors such as the sophistication of
that device, its robustness and the number issued.
Characterisation of the card as a device reflects calls
for the government to adopt a smart card: one that has
some encryption capability, that features discrete digital
'wallets' or files (eg separate public/private health
information and other information) and that holds several
biometrics. Such a card would go some way to addressing
concerns in parts of the community but would be more expensive
than traditional bits of plastic with a magnetic stripe
or merely the bearer's details and photograph.
Robustness is an issue, as faulty cards and readers will
need to be replaced as they wear out. Some allowance needs
to be made for cards that are lost or stolen. Overseas
proponents and critics of such cards suggest that annual
replacement rates are between 0.1% and over 5%.
Depending on the particular scheme costs would be reduced
through economies of scale if there were was substantial
takeup, whether on a compulsory or voluntary basis
Proponents of 21st century national identity verification
regimes have typically argued that effectiveness is dependent
on cards being electronically checked in real time against
one of more databases. In essence, there is little point
in extending the existing driver licence regime, which
as noted earlier in this note relies on observers intuiting
that the card is authentic because it "looks right"
and capturing the name, birthdate, address, registration
number for matching with a register.
Some technology will therefore be required to read the
card. The sophistication of the reader (a magnetic stripe
device, an RFID reader?) and its deployment would be dependent
on expectations about how the regime would operate.
Enthusiasts often forecast that readers would be ubiquitous,
in use for example in all hospitals, medical practices,
government offices, universities, tax agents, real-estate
agents, banks, airports and any other location that requires
identification for public or private purposes. Others
have been more cautious, highlighting concerns if devices
proliferate until they are in use in cafes and video rental
For most specialists the key concern about an Australia
is how it relates to one or more databases, rather than
the shape and cost of the bit of plastic that might be
carried by all or most residents of the country.
Will the card embody a set of discrete files, each linked
to databases that are quarantined in order to inhibit
inappropriate data-matching and reduce security risks.
Will such databases be new or an enhancement/extension
of existing data collections. Will information instead
pass through a central gateway? Will different databases
communicate with each other, as proposed by some advocates
for the purposes of data verification and the identification
of offenses or predictive activity?
We do not know the answers to such questions. They are
pertinent because they affect the cost of an Australia
Card regime. They also reflect uncertainties about its
effectiveness. Successive reports by the Australian National
Audit Office, along with embarrassing system failures
and criticism by prime contractors, demonstrates that
federal government agencies have experienced difficulty
with specification and development of large scale systems.
Performance has often been underwhelming and costs have
That history is understandable, given difficult relationships
between some agencies and contractors, large-scale project
creep that reflects ongoing changes in legislation and
evolving ministerial visions, the difficulty of designing
complex systems without a clear sense of what they are
meant to achieve (and how they are to be measured), conflicts
between different agencies, and management inadequacies
in particular agencies (including a tendency to embrace
glitzy offerings without a deep understanding of what's
One conclusion is that specification, development and
maintenance of the 'back end' of a ubiquitous national
identifier regime is likely to be significant more expensive
than projected by most agencies.
A traditional - and often disingenuous - response to concerns
about the cost of national identity schemes is to ask
"what price national security".
In practice it is difficult to offer a coherent and comprehensive
cost/benefit analysis because
of costs are unavailable or are disputed
of benefits are unavailable or are disputed
often prove to be pessimistic or optimistic
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