Privacy lobby digs trench, sets gun

Beverley Head

An Australia Card scale row is brewing between the government and the Australian Privacy Foundation over the proposed national digital identity regime.

The Australian Privacy Foundation (APF), which was founded in 1987 expressly to fight the Australia Card proposal, detailed its concerns in a letter sent last month to the head of digital identity at the Digital Transformation Office of Rachel Dixon.

Ms Dixon heads the DTO’s program to develop the Trusted Digital Identity Framework.

Australia Card: Oh great, this bun fight again. Terrific.

Noting that public trust in corporations and government agencies has been seriously harmed in recent years, the APF maintains that there has been no proper engagement by the government or DTO with “civil society” regarding the proposals.

The foundation has established a special task force to focus on the issue.

A spokesperson for Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor told “a big driver in moving more government services online is convenience, but privacy is a concern for all of us.”

“When we move services online and away from face-to-face delivery, we understand that Australians want to be reassured that security and privacy are a priority.

“To that end, Government must, in a transparent manner, spell it out for the general public; engage, answer questions, take on board feedback and improve service delivery.”

Despite this stated willingness to engage, the letter to Ms Dixon, signed by APF’s three vice-chairs Kat Lane, Dr David Lindsay and David Vaile, which has been provided to, indicates that the biometric component of the project is a genuine stumbling block.

“The imposition of biometric identifiers may be the measure that completely destroys the social contract between government and the public,” the APF says.

“Any discussion of biometrics in government service delivery must commence with an iron-clad commitment that, with the exception of criminal investigation contexts, biometric measures capable of identifying individuals will never be in the possession of a government or a corporation, and that all biometrics will be handled only within the equivalent of a secure PIN-pad.”

According to Roger Clarke, principal of Xamax Consultancy, a visiting professor at UNSW and ANU, and board member of the APF, the Foundation has yet to receive a formal response to its letter from the DTO.

“It’s looking increasingly likely that the DTO fleet is sailing full steam ahead, and damn the torpedoes,” he said.

“So, yet again, it looks like being confronted by the project sponsor, not consultation, and defeat and withdrawal for the project in due course, rather than a meaningful application of (privacy) evaluation principles.”

Details of the identity framework were originally slated to be revealed in August with a roadshow to follow, which would have provided the public and industry with an opportunity to respond.

Neither of those has yet eventuated, but according to the APF the identity framework is already the subject of a Cabinet submission.

In addition, the identity framework has secured the support of the NSW Government which this week confirmed its plans to work with the Commonwealth on the initiative, while two of the big banks have reportedly signalled their interest in also participating in a national identity regime.

The APF letter however argues that there remains a lack of clarity about the intended use of the platform.

“There is a generic sense that the framework would reduce friction in online service delivery. However, specific benefits are not easily visualised. It would assist the evaluation if a modest set of diverse use-cases were outlined and the applicable processes and anticipated benefits described,” it states.

The Foundation’s letter to Ms Dixon further warns that there could be serious risks posed to consumers and citizens using the scheme, both in terms of security breaches, function creep and a possible shift from the opt-in model which currently is favoured by the DTO to an opt-out regime.

“If abused the scheme would represent a convenient stepping stone to a national identification scheme. That would shift the imbalance of power even further away from individuals and threaten political freedoms. It is accordingly vital that the privacy protections be very substantial,” it notes.

The concerns set out in the APF letter have not yet had any formal response.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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