Monday, September 03, 2007

Tuesday column: The Access Card is a complete mess, buried but still belching up toxic smoke.

The Prime Minister says Labor's industrial relations plan is "cobbled together". Compared to his own government's plan for an Australian Access Card, it is a model of due process.

Both plans will, if implemented, limit our rights and create obligations way into the future. And as it happens both involve the one of the Prime Minister's favourite right-hand men Joe Hockey.

Before his current job as the Minister and attack dog for industrial relations (he says Labor's policy is an ugly nightmare) Joe Hockey was in put charge of developing a $1 billion plus information technology project, that also involved social engineering.

He cut corners...

On taking over the human services portfolio in 2004 he inherited a cautious limited trial of a Medicare smart-card underway in Tasmania which he disparaged, declaring that pilots were “for planes, not for technology in my view”.

He called for tenders for two Access Card projects each worth hundreds of millions of dollars ahead of submitting the legislation to parliament (a process that caught the attention of the Audit Office) and spent $3 million advertising the proposed new card through agencies including George Patterson and Young & Rubicam.

His department hired a public relations consultant to promote the card on a contract worth $580,000 and a "branding consultant" on $100,000. A Senate estimates hearing heard that 18 departmental staff were working full-time on communications strategy for the card.

All this was before any of the legislation approving the card had been passed by the Senate, and before all of the legislation had even been written.

It is an approach that created moments of farce.

During the Senate inquiry this March the ACT’s Kate Lundy asked Christopher Cook, an executive with one of the firms tendering to build the card Computer Sciences Corporation about the performance indicators in the tender documents. Cook replied that he was bound by confidentiality. While Lundy could ask, he could not answer.

Hockey commissioned the accounting firm KPMG to prepare a business case for the card, which he promised to release, and then released only edited highlights. When the Australian Democrats tried to obtain the full document under Freedom of Information laws Hockey’s department said it would cost them $867.23.

To reassure the public that its interests were being taken into account Hockey set up a task force chaired by Allan Fels AO. It recommended that the Minister reconsider putting a photo on the face of the card and that he not put on it a signature or a unique identify number.

Hockey decided that the card needed all three.

When the government’s own Privacy Commissioner raised similar concerns citing an increased risk of identity fraud Hockey remained unmoved.

By the time a Senate Committee dominated by his own side of politics called for the whole thing to be sent back to the drawing board (a very rare occurrence) Hockey had been parachuted out of the portfolio.

His successor Ian Campbell lasted only weeks, resigning over an unrelated matter. His successor Chris Ellison was in the job only months before the departmental secretary who had driven the project was moved on.

It is easy to get the feeling that plans for an Access Card have been on a sort-of autopilot since then, in large measure because several private sector firms have already spent millions preparing tenders for a scheme that has yet to get parliamentary approval.

The latest Minister Chris Ellison has continued to reject calls from the government’s Privacy Commissioner, its Access Card taskforce and the senate committee to leave important personal information off the face of the card, and has said that if the Coalition gets back he wants the legislation passed.

His latest draft of that legislation attempts to placate them with reassurances that seem nonsensical. It states explicitly that “access cards are not to be used as, and are not to become, national identity cards” but no-where does it define what it means by the term national identity card. It says that “an individual owns his or her access card” but neglects to say what it means by the term ownership, other than to make it clear that people can’t sell their cards or get access to all of the information written inside them.

If Alan Fels is worried, if the government’s Privacy Commissioner is worried, and if a Coalition-dominated Senate Committee is worried, should we be?

After all most of us have absolutely nothing to hide.

Why not take Hockey and his successors at their word and get a card that we can use to absolutely prove our identity for Medicare and Centrelink purposes?

For two reasons:

One is that as soon as our photos, signatures and unique identifying numbers (along with our dates of birth if we wish) are printed on the face of the card it effectively becomes a universal identity card.

If you don’t believe me, think about our driver’s licences. In a number of states including NSW it is illegal for anyone not connected with the roads and traffic administration to demand to see your licence or be told your licence number.

But almost every organisation that wants to find out who you are asks for one. Try dealing with ActewAGL without one.

It will be illegal under the Access Card regime as well for unauthorized people to demand to see the card (with enforcement via on-the-spot fines) but it will happen.

In any event it WILL be legal for bars, telephone companies, banks and the like to request the “voluntary” production of the card.

When the Access Card becomes near-universally accepted, as such a high-quality identity document is likely to be, it’ll become valuable to identity thieves.

And guess what? The signature they need to forge and the face they need to match will be printed on the face of the card.

A really secure card would only have the photograph and perhaps the signature recorded on the secure computer chip inside the card, making the card itself useless to most identity thieves and useful only for the purposes that the government says it is needed for.

That’s what the government’s friends and appointed experts have been telling it. They want a card that will work, not one that was cobbled together early by an enthusiast who put the project out for tender without approval leaving his successors uncomfortable about backing out.