The Guardian 27 July, 2005

ID card now a real menace

Peter Mac

When John Howard recently discussed introducing a compulsory Australian ID card, some commentators said he wasn’t serious, and that he was just trying to deflect public attention from political disasters such as the government’s immigration policy.

Not so! The ID card is a deadly serious proposal, and issues relating to the card system were actually discussed in detail at a recent federal government cabinet meeting. Moreover, it has been revealed that the new Australian Medicare "smart" cards, which will include personal records such as address, telephone number, social security details and health records along with biometric data*, are being used as a model for the ID card. It includes DNA, facial features, the iris, voice, gate, skin texture and other features. Introduction of a new "government services" card, which would be very similar to an ID card, has also been proposed.

The Blair government is currently attempting to force ID cards on an increasingly resentful British public. Howard, who in the 1980s opposed the "Australia Card" ID system proposed by Bob Hawke, has used the latest London bombings to recommend the card as a means (he says) to nip terrorism in the bud, even though terrorists of the type believed to have been involved in the London bombings can usually only be identified after they actually carry out a terrorist act.

The Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, has asked for the sum of $376 million to create a document verification system, such as would be required for the introduction of ID cards in Australia. (Mind you, this would be just for getting started. The cost of the proposed British card system has been estimated at between A$25 billion and A$40 billion over the first ten years of its operation.)

Some Liberal MPs have also argued that the use of the card would have avoided the appalling illegal imprisonment of Australian citizen Cornelia Rau as an illegal immigrant.

They haven’t actually said how. A card will not overcome the problem of official neglect, disinterest and abuse that was so evident in the case of Ms Rau and others. To prevent another Rau case, it is not necessary for a government (or the private agencies they might contract out to) to keep mountains of personal data on every individual. Such biometric data is not necessary.

Wide open to abuse

The possession of such data on virtually every person in the country has huge potential for the abuse of human rights by the government, and for criminal acts by persons gaining unauthorised access to the data. With modern technology, ID cards can provide information about your financial affairs, your personal and medical history, your political beliefs and religious and other affiliations, and any criminal convictions or accusations.

The possession of such information in a single huge government database is obviously a key objective for an increasingly authoritarian government. In the hands of an extremely reactionary government, such as we have today, it is a powerful political weapon which could be used against trade unionists, peace activists, communists, and any other groups or individuals that stand up to its policies and actions.

It would also be hugely tempting target for malevolent individuals, financial institutions, multinational corporations or intelligence organisations, foreign and domestic. And as the Australian Privacy Foundation has noted, unauthorised access to such a system would only require one expert hacker or one corrupt official. There are plenty of precedents of government information being leaked from government departments.

Biometric data has proved technically unreliable in some cases, where it has been used overseas, and the proposal has raised issues about the misuse of lost cards and the sort of draconian criminal legislation that would be necessary to force citizens to carry and use the cards.

The proposal has made some conservative federal MPs very nervous. One said that the issue would cause a bigger split within the coalition ranks than the issue of mandatory detention of immigrants, and that many conservative party members would reject a national ID card fiercely, in the same way that they opposed the Hawke government’s proposal in the 1980s.

While Howard and others have argued that the inclusion of biometric data would prevent the misuse of cards, unauthorised access to card information is entirely feasible. The divisions in the government’s ranks over the card proposal were illustrated recently when the federal treasurer himself stated that forging the cards themselves was a possibility. He was followed by none other than federal MP Bronwyn Bishop, who declared her opposition to any proposal that involved such a loss of human rights.

One Liberal backbencher remarked: "You can always change your passport, but if I nick your fingerprint or your DNA, you’ve got a real problem there." Liberal MP Steve Ciobo has stated publicly and bluntly that he would oppose the proposal, and many others have joined him.

It says a lot about the mentality of the Prime Minister that he has been prepared to recommend a political innovation so loaded with the potential for the abuse of human rights that even his own supporters are beginning to publicly reject the proposal.

*Biometric data is information about an individual’s unique physical characteristics that could be used to identify the person.

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