Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tuesday Column: Australia's imminent biometric 'Access Card'

Why is it that each time a new government minister promotes the wonders of the new Access Card I feel a chill? It could be because of the succession of ministers in charge – 3 in the last 3 months.

It could be because each has expressed a deep and previously unadvertised personal commitment to the idea of an Access Card.

And it could be because of the things that they say.

Last month, before resigning from the Ministry over having met Brian Burke Senator Ian Campbell claimed that the proposed card was “not an ID card”.

He said its use would be limited to accessing Medicare, Centrelink and Veterans’ benefits. If any future government wanted to use it more broadly it “will have to bring a new law in”.

I have heard that kind of talk before...

In early 1988 the then Tax Commissioner Trevor Boucher personally assured me that the proposed new Tax File Number scheme would be completely voluntary. If you didn’t want to hand over your TFN to a financial institution it would deduct tax from your earnings at the top marginal rate and you would be able to claim back the overpayment later. You wouldn’t have to quote your TFN.

And the tax file number was to be used only for purposes relating to tax. In the reassuring words of the then Treasurer Paul Keating: “No other government or non-government agency will have access to the Tax Office file number registration system, nor will it be able to use an individual's TFN for any registration system of its own”.

Yet a year after getting the bill through parliament the government extended it to make the TFN compulsory when applying for an unemployment benefit. And then it extended it further to make the TFN compulsory when claiming sole parents payments, family allowances, students grants, veterans benefits and first home benefits grants.
Most of these new uses had nothing to do with tax. For none of them was the TFN voluntary.

What happened to Australia’s TFN identity system happens so often that that there’s a phrase for it – “function creep”.

Allan Fels who examined the current Access Card proposal for the government says the idea dates back to at least 1939. In that year the British government introduced an identification card with 3 purposes. By the time it was abolished a decade later it had amassed 39 uses.

Drivers’ licences were originally introduced in order to certify that the owner was licensed to drive. These days ActewAGL and TransACT ask for your licence number if you want to connect the gas, water or electricity or telephone. When I told the man from TransACT that I didn’t have my drivers licence number on me (and couldn’t see why I should hand it over) he rang back three times asking for it.

TransACT’s official position, outlined to me yesterday, is that handing over a drivers licence number is voluntary. It says any form of identification, even a mother’s maiden name will do - but that’s not how it seems when you’re trying to get the phone on.

The government’s official position is that no-one will be able to require you to hand over your Access Card for any purpose other than those for which it was created. On AM last month Senator Campbell said that anyone who tried to force you to hand over your card could “actually potentially go to jail for five years.”

But, with your written consent, anyone will be able to ask for the card. The Australian Privacy Foundation has told the current Senate inquiry that it expects that “consent” will quickly be written into the application form for every bank account, video store card, RSL club membership, retail loyalty card - and job.

And there are reasons to believe that the people behind the card expect this sort of “function creep”. Later this month at a conference in Sydney the Chief Technology Architect in the Office of the Access Card is due to present a paper entitled Towards a Cashless Australasia.

Three years ago the technology solutions vendor Peter Solomon who had partnered with the former National Party leader Ian Sinclair in a company promoting a universal identity card outlined the way in which he expected one to evolve. He told The Bulletin it would start out as a health card, then, “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,” he said.

It is easy to believe that the impetus behind the Access Card proposal comes from such people. The reasons quoted by the succession of ministers responsible for the card don’t quite stack up. We are told that it will replace up to 17 existing cards meaning “less clutter in your wallet” (despite the fact that very few of us use even a handful of cards to access government services), we are told that it will mean “less time waiting in queues” and we are told that it will fight fraud.

Exactly where it will fight fraud is a secret. The accounting firm KPMG has prepared a business case for the government that concludes that the card will save between $1.6 and $3 billion over 10 years. In the report made public, the section that backs up this estimate has been “deleted as this represents a risk to government outlays.”

In any event it must be noted that these forecast savings are small as a return on the $1.1 billion that the government expects to spend rolling out the card. In purely financial terms the government would be better off buying shares.

But the project will bring the government a benefit that cannot be quantified - biometric photographs of every one of us (or should I say biometric photographs of every one of us who wants to access Medicare).

Biometric photographs measure and record the exact relationship between each of our facial features. The measurement is said to be so precise that it can differentiate between identical twins. Last week the head of ASIO Paul O’Sullivan told the Senate committee that ASIO and the federal police would be able to access the proposed biometric database without warrants. Should the authorities want to identify who is in a photograph or a video perhaps taken at a protest rally, a football match or a bank robbery they would be able to look up the database to work out who it was.

It is access that could have cleared up the identity of the mentally ill Australian resident Cornelia Rau in 2004 and prevented her from being wrongly locked up as an illegal immigrant.

But I am not sure that it is access most of us want. And despite the repeated assurances of whoever happens to be the minister at the time I am not sure that access won’t spread.

The ministers tell us that the Access Card won’t become a national identification card. I am hoping that’s all it becomes.

Extra recommended reading:

Senate Committee report (due this Thursday March 15, 2007)

Proof of ID Required? Getting Identity Management Right, Malcolm Crompton, Privacy Commissioner 30 March 2004