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Would Australia Card II be any better than Australia Card I?

By Edward Mandla - posted Wednesday, 29 December 2004


The announcement by Queen Elizabeth of plans for a compulsory identity card scheme for the United Kingdom has sparked discussion about whether Australia should consider a similar course of action.

The federal Government denied a few weeks ago it had plans to introduce an Australia Card-style national identification system, after an Australian Federal Police spokesman suggested it was time to revisit the idea.

Growing problems with identity theft and concerns over increased security and terrorism threats have prompted new interest in this subject. The UK scheme was pushed by similar issues, along with the need to tighten immigration processes.

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Population registration programs operate in several European nations, including Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others, where community concerns over privacy issues rate less than in Australia. Australia and the UK last operated identity registration card systems during World War II. These were justified because of the scarcity of food and the need to monitor rationing, but they ended with the war.

In the United States, people are required to provide their Social Security Number to employers. However, the SSN scheme is considered to have relatively low integrity since it is easy to falsify numbers and most employers can't check the validity of the number supplied.

Opponents of the UK proposal cite privacy concerns, the huge costs associated with introducing such a scheme as well as the imposition on citizens to prove their identity and apply for the card. Under the proposal, everyone over the age of 16 will have personal information, fingerprints and facial scans recorded as well as paying for the privilege of receiving a card.

According to no2id.net:

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office currently struggles to register half a million people a year - a visit to a UK immigration office begins with a long queue circling the building.

This will be the reality of getting an ID card - an experience to be repeated every five-to-10 years of your adult life. Entry to the UK will be easier for tourists than for British citizens, who must have their biometrics compared against the ID register.

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Then there is the increased imposition on businesses and employers, which must view and record card details, impose sanctions on people who don't have one, and presumably report to authorities on the results. Once those sorts of systems are in place, it's a short leap to seeing more and more businesses classifying individuals by their unique number rather than their name and then sharing data, based on that number.

The sad reality about many identity systems is that while honest citizens are forced to go through administrative rigmarole to prove who they are, organised criminals quickly find ways to rort the system with false documentation.

When the government proposed the Australia Card ID system back in the mid-1980s to combat tax evasion, welfare fraud and illegal immigration, the community responded with mass demonstrations around the country. It would be interesting to see what the present sentiment is. Certainly, former Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton said the concept of an Australia Card was outdated and that we need to look for other solutions.

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First published in The Australian December 7, 2004.



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About the Author

Edward Mandla is national president of the Australian Computer Society.

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