The Guardian 13 April, 2005

Big Brother Costa backs NSW ID card

Peter Mac

In the 1980s the Hawke government tried unsuccessfully to introduce the grossly invasive "Australia Card", and recently the Howard government moved to introduce an equally intrusive system using a centrally-controlled electronic data base. And now in NSW Labor’s Minister for Roads, Michael Costa, is trying to introduce almost exactly the same thing for the people of NSW. It is just as sinister as its federal counterpart, but on this occasion there is virtually no public awareness, let alone public discussion or debate.

Legislation entitled the Photo Card Bill 2004 has already passed the lower house of parliament, the Legislative Assembly, where it met no opposition whatsoever from the opposition Liberal/National Party coalition.

The Bill’s title is deceptive. The card would not be an innocuous plastic photo of the holder, nor would its information be limited to what is actually shown on the card itself. Nor, for that matter, would access to the information be limited to the needs of the issuing authority — the Road Transport Authority (RTA).

Rather, the card would provide electronic information by means of a central database about every citizen of NSW, under a "unique identifier" numbering system. This information would include not only the subject’s photo, address and driver’s licence details, but could also include an almost limitless range of information, including (but by no means limited to) occupation, gender, marital status, commercial transactions, travel arrangements, market preferences, criminal record, political affiliations and possibly even fingerprint and facial recognition digital images.

The existence of the card would pose a serious risk to the security of the subject, and would facilitate identity theft and fraud. Although the proposal has come from the minister responsible for road transport, the information could be shared by all government departments and agencies. It would also be highly vulnerable to "hacking" on behalf of businesses or more sinister organisations.

Anna Johnson, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation (APF), has described the card scheme as "the most fundamental attack on our personal freedoms since the failed Australia Card proposal of the 1980s" and "the worst kind of ‘Big Brother’ proposal".

She warned: "One of the biggest privacy risks comes from the proposal to create a ‘unique identifier’ for every person. … This allows both government and businesses to track, link and profile people’s movements and transactions. …

"Centralising vast amounts of personal data … is a gift to organised criminals, terrorists and other people intent on doing harm. It means only one database to hack into, or one clerk at the RTA to bribe. Yet the government seems intent on creating this great honey pot of data, despite the obvious risks involved for the people of NSW."

And the provision of information for the database would not be voluntary. As Ms Johnson has noted, "The Bill makes it a crime not to tell the RTA every time you move house, even if you don’t have a driver’s licence".

The APF has made it clear that it does not object to a simple photo­card. After all, this is essentially what a driver’s licence is already. The APF has supplied an alternative proposal to the government that would serve the RTA’s particular requirements without having the potential to provide government and other organisations with vast amounts of unrelated personal material.

However, the government has simply ignored this alternative and pressed on with its card proposal. The implication is clear. The government is using the RTA’s operations as an excuse to ram its way into the private lives of the citizens of NSW, in gross violation of their civil rights.

Greens spokesperson for justice matters, Lee Rhiannon, commented: "Big Brother Costa is fitting the stereotype, stretching his influence to all areas of our lives — transport, roads, planning, jobs, the economy and now our personal lives. Coming from a government that has run down its privacy watchdog, Privacy NSW, to a mere skerrick of its former self, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised."

The Greens have indicated they will oppose the legislation, due to be debated in the upper house in five weeks time.

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