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6 - Why 'Australia Card Mark II' is still a dumb idea

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10 - Why 'Australia Card Mark II' is still a dumb idea


27th Jan 2006

Why 'Australia Card Mark II' is still a dumb idea
Australian ...
A national identification scheme was not needed to prevent the wrongful detention of ... Supporters of a national ID card should not take heart from recent polls ... Card Mark II can be found on the Australian Privacy Foundation's website. ... Vichy and Communist regimes - is why the development of unique and ...

Why 'Australia Card Mark II' is still a dumb idea
27 January 2006Anna Johnston outlines the arguments against a national identity card for Australians

THE PUBLIC DEBATE about the Australian government’s recent proposal to re-examine the idea of a national identity card in light of twenty-first century bugbears (terrorism, immigration debacles, the growth of identity fraud) must be informed by information about both its potential costs and benefits.

For six reasons, I argue that the promised inquiry will find the costs of an Australia Card far outstrip any possible benefits, in 2006 just as in 1986.

1. ID cards are of doubtful effectiveness in tackling identity fraud, crime and terrorism

Identity fraud and identity theft can be used to support a wide range of illegal behaviour - from under-age drinking, through credit card fraud, to the adoption of false identities to assist in organised crimes including terrorism.

For a national ID card to have any of its claimed benefits in relation to stamping out identity fraud or identity theft, the card would have to be part of a massive and complex system featuring a centralised database - a national population register. But a centralised database of personal information would likely make identity fraud and theft worse, because a centralised system is vulnerable to hacking, manipulation and corruption.

Our Attorney-General knows this; in June 2005, at the Australian Smart Cards Summit, Philip Ruddock rejected the idea of a national ID card because it ‘could increase the risk of fraud because only one document would need to be counterfeited to establish identity’.

Experts at the Homeland Security Summit, held in Canberra in the wake of the London bombings in July last year, identified a range of targeted activities which could be undertaken to prevent or reduce the threat of terrorism, including better resourcing of intelligence services, police training, and development of response plans.

We know of no expert advocating ID cards as a genuinely effective tool in fighting terrorism. Indeed, many terrorists do not hide their identities. The UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke has admitted national ID cards would not have prevented the London bombings.

The National Identity Security Strategy, announced in April last year, recognises that our current system of multiple identity documents should be strengthened, not replaced, in order to tackle identity fraud and the crimes it supports.

2. ID cards would not prevent identification errors being made

A national ID card system would not be any more secure, free from corruption or immune from simple clerical errors than any other database. The use of biometrics could indeed prove disastrous, as the victim of identity theft or data corruption cannot just be issued with new fingerprints or DNA.

A national identification scheme was not needed to prevent the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau or deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon. Instead, the Palmer Report proposed a national missing persons bureau, a specific, targeted and practical plan that is well worth considering.

3. The cost of a national ID system would be staggering and wasteful
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has suggested that the cost of a national identity card could be as high as A$750 per person, or around A$15 billion in total - not including the flow-on costs to business.

Canada recently abandoned its plan for a national ID card, preferring to spend taxpayers’ money on more targeted anti-terrorism measures such as border security, and in the UK, the House of Lords has just voted to halt the Blair government’s national ID card scheme until detailed costs can be clarified.

Estimates from the London School of Economics suggested the cost of establishing a UK national ID card would fall somewhere between £10.6 billion and £19.2 billion over ten years. Yet the cost of identity fraud on which an ID card might have a significant impact was estimated at only £35 million a year. In other words, the cost of the ID card is likely to be at least thirty times greater each year than the cost of the problems it is supposed to solve.

There is no evidence to suggest that Australians would get a positive financial return for their A$15 billion.

4. There is widespread public opposition to ID cards

Supporters of a national ID card should not take heart from recent polls suggesting public support of around 62 per cent. That is an even lower figure of support than that which first favoured the doomed Australia Card proposal when it was mooted in 1985. As details emerged, support levels plummeted.

A list of organisations and prominent individuals who have already publicised their concerns about the latest incarnation of Australia Card Mark II can be found on the Australian Privacy Foundation’s website.

5. A national ID card is significantly different to what we have now

A national ID card is much more than just an extra card in our wallets, and much more intrusive than the current system.

What is most significant and different about a national ID card, as opposed to a driver’s licence or a passport, is that the card number creates a single key, through which both governments and businesses can confidently index, link, track and profile our movements, transactions, and personal affairs, combining records in large scale and routine ways.

This type of linking and profiling is not currently possible because Australians do not have assigned to them a single, universal and unique number. Drivers’ licences and passports are not universally held; Medicare card numbers are not unique as they can cover more than one family member.

The creation of a single, unique and universal identification number means governments and businesses can not only identify people at the time of a transaction, but can also link their records with information about the same people collated from other organisations, and thus build up profiles of our activity.

So while many Australians might not mind showing some form of proof of identity each time they board a plane, mail a parcel overseas, visit a doctor, write a cheque, fill a prescription, apply for social security payments, rent a car, enter a pub or open a bank account, the idea that all those aspects of our daily lives might be tracked, linked together, matched and profiled - and the resulting profiles used to make decisions about us - is far more disturbing.

During the Australia Card debates of the mid-1980s, Professor Geoffrey de Q. Walker noted the role of this type of mass population surveillance in developing social control: ‘the totalitarian government relies on secrecy for the regime but high surveillance and disclosure for all other groups, whereas in the civic culture of liberal democracy, the position is approximately the reverse.’

The potential for abuse of the indexing, linking, tracking and profiling capability of a national ID number - and indeed the specific memory of abuses during the Nazi, Vichy and Communist regimes - is why the development of unique and universal identification systems has been prohibited under the constitution of some countries, and under general privacy laws in others.

6. The impact on the Australian way of life would be profound
Anonymity in our daily lives is necessary if we are to protect freedom of speech and freedom of association.

A national ID card would profoundly affect the everyday lives of Australians. The mass ‘dataveillance’ system it represents would treat all Australians as suspects instead of free citizens.

Indeed our prime minister opposed the Australia Card for this very reason. In 1987 John Howard said that ‘the assumption of the Australia Card legislation is that every Australian is a cheat... it involves establishing a level of intrusion of a draconian kind into the day to day activities of many people’.

The very creation of a universal ID card strips away from people the ability to be anonymous. There will no longer be a perfectly valid explanation (‘I don’t drive’) for why a person does not have a photographic identification document handy at all times.

Overseas experience tells us what happens next. Providers of goods and services know that their clients or customers no longer have a ‘real’ excuse for not having photo ID, and so they will start demanding photo ID in more and more routine transactions.

We would quickly reach the stage where someone who does not produce their card on request will be viewed as inherently suspicious. This is particularly troubling when the government is encouraging ordinary citizens to report any behaviour or activity that seems out of the ordinary.

Respecting privacy is about recognising that all of us have a space in our lives we prefer to keep private. That does not mean we have ‘something to hide’. We don’t disclose to strangers our bank account numbers or PINs, because we want to protect our finances. We may choose to protect information about our health, sexual activities or religious beliefs, because we wish to avoid embarrassment or discrimination. Sometimes we just want to avoid unnecessary intrusion, harassment or solicitation. And there are many people at threat from harm, for whom keeping their address or movements secret is a matter of personal safety.

A national identity card would cost Australians billions of dollars that could be better spent on real solutions to identity fraud and the crimes it supports.

But more importantly, a national identity card would also cost us the very way of life that we claim to be defending from terrorists - a life free from excessive government intrusion into our personal affairs. •

Anna Johnston chairs the Australian Privacy Foundation