The federal government’s troubled digital identity program will not be a repeat of the doomed Australia Card and will actually be “privacy-enhancing”, according to the Digital Transformation Agency.
The DTA fronted Senate estimates hearing on Thursday night, fielding questions exclusively about GovPass, its digital identity program. Agency officials defended the program against accusations it faces many of the same problems posed by the Australia Card, and that nobody has heard of it.
Agency officials also confirmed that legislation would be introduced to underpin some of the scheme, and that it would be incorporated with myGov by the middle of next year.
The initiative is a whole-of-government effort way to verify identity across a range of government and private sector services. The Coalition has opted for a federated model, with the DTA creating the rules under which a provider can be accredited (the Trusted Digital Identity Framework) and then offer a digital identity service under the scheme.
The government is funding two such offerings via the ATO and Australia Post.
The program has been criticised for spiralling costs and continual delays, and for a lack of privacy safeguards and underlying legislation. The government’s digital identity efforts have been criticised for not having any legislation underpinning it, with calls for privacy and security assurances to be enshrined in law.
The DTA told estimates hearing that myGovID, the ATO’s digital identity service which can be used for some taxation services and to obtain a unique student identifier, has been downloaded 81,000 times from the app store since June, and 46,000 identities have been created.
DTA chief digital officer Peter Alexander acknowledged the agency had “absolutely” identified privacy risks associated with the digital identity, but had worked through these during a series of consultations.
“There’s been a really thorough process and we’ve designed this system in such a way that it is not only privacy friendly, it’s privacy enhancing. It will be more private than the current physical processes that exist today,” he said.
Mr Alexander confirmed the government would be introducing legislation, but that it would be focusing on applying the set of standards and rules for GovPass to the private sector and state and territory governments.
“The main reason for that legislation requirement is as this system becomes national, there is a requirement for legislation to govern the Trusted Digital Identity Framework,” Mr Alexander told the hearing.
“We can apply the framework for government agencies without legislation but for states and territories and the private sector, a policy isn’t enough, we need legislation which would mandate nationally the operation of that framework,” he said.
Mr Alexander also confirmed that several state and territory governments, the major banks and MasterCard are also looking to have their digital identity offerings accredited under the scheme. Government has also signed bilateral agreements with Singapore and New Zealand as it looks to work on “mutual recognition of digital identity” internationally.
Another major criticism of the government’s digital identity program is that it risks going down the same path as the highly controversial Australia Card, which was abandoned in the late 80s. DTA officials hit back at this suggestion and looked to distance GovPass from the previous effort.
“This is an optional identity people can choose to create with government. This is something people can choose to opt into or not. It’s very different to the Australia Card because it is not a number, it is optional and it is also something that each individual owns,” DTA chief executive Randall Brugeaud said.
“You own your facial biometric, it’s not owned by the government. This is a very different paradigm,” he said.
There are also concerns among committee members of an incredibly low level of awareness among the general population of the identity plans.
“I’ve never heard anyone mention it. Nearly everyone I come into contact with talks to me about myGov, but I’ve never heard anyone talking to me about GovPass,” Labor Senator Carol Brown said.
The lack of public communication or advertising around the scheme has been a deliberate decision though, Mr Brugeaud said, with the DTA waiting until GovPass is actually useful.
“We are being very deliberate in releasing this in a controlled way, testing it with users and refining as we go so we are progressively building the foundation for the digital identity environment in a way that is being incremented,” he said.
“Our intention is to progressively add more and more services. The value associated with having a digital identity comes when you can do something with it.
“Having the capacity to create a digital identity once for the government then reuse it multiple times is where the real benefit lies.
“There are clear integrity and security benefits associated with having a digital identity rather than having the physical tokens that you are currently needing to have,” Mr Brugeaud said.
There have been calls for a large-scale review of the GovPass program, as several private sector companies look to be included in the scheme.