When it comes to dealing with identity, Australia has already “been there, done that.” In 1987 there was a massive public revolt against a proposed national ID card that imprinted several of the Laws of Identity on the psyche of the nation.
None the less, the country faces the same challenges around health care and social benefits as every other: the need to streamline benefits processing, reduce fraud, and improve information flow where it is vital to the health and safety of individual citizens.
Over the last few years this had led a whole cohort of Australians to think extensively about how identity, privacy and efficiency can all be served through new paradigms and new technology.
On its second try, Australia went in a fundamentally different direction than it did with its 1987 proposal (reminiscent of others that have hit the wall of public opinion recently in other countries). This time, Australia started out right – bringing privacy advocates into the center of the process from day one.
The cabinet minister responsible for all of this has been Joe Hockey, who seems to have a no-nonsense approach based on putting users in control and minimizing disclosure.
Finally! Our first glimpse of a government initiative that is, at least in its inception, fully cognisant of the Laws of Identity. Beyond this, instead of swimming with dull proposals based on Berlin-wall technology, Australia is leading the way by benefiting from new inventions like smartcards with advanced processors and web services that can together put information ownership in the hands (and wallets) of the individuals concerned.
Here's the story from The West Australian
Police, State governments and banks will not be able to demand access to the new $1.1 billion smartcards under new laws aimed at stopping them becoming de facto national identity cards.
Responding to a report to be released today by Access Card task force chairman Allan Fels, Human Services Minister Joe Hockey will announce changes to ensure individual cardholders have legal ownership over them.
In a speech to be delivered to the National Press Club today he says most government and bank-issued cards remain the property of the issuer but in what may be a world first, the new laws will ensure the cards cannot be demanded for ID purposes.
Professor Fels foreshadowed the legislation in June when he warned consumers needed to be given as much control over the card as possible, and that the Government faced major security concerns if it did not protect cardholders from having to produce the card as identification.
Mr Hockey says the legislation will be introduced next year.
The Government will be able to turn off access to health and welfare benefits if the owner of the card is no longer entitled to them.
The high-tech cards, to be rolled out across Australia from 2008, will replace 17 health and social services cards, including the Medicare card, healthcare cards and veteransâ€™ cards.
They will include a digital photo and name but not the holderâ€™s address and date of birth, and the microchip will store certain health information and emergency contact details.
The Government says it will not be compulsory, but has admitted it will be hard to avoid because it will be required for all government services.
Nearly every Australian will need to carry a smartcard by 2010.
In his speech, Mr Hockey will argue that Australia has been a â€œcomplacent comfort zoneâ€ when it comes to aspects of card technology and security.
â€œMany other countries, particularly in Europe, replaced the magnetic strip with a microchip long ago,â€ he says.
He denies the scheme will result in one giant data base.
â€œYour information will stay where it presently is, the agency relevant to that information, the agency you deal with,â€ he says.
The Government hopes the scheme will wipe out $3 billion in welfare fraud a year.
Shadow human services minister Kelvin Thomson said the Government had engaged in precious little public debate about the card.
â€œConcerns include the threat to privacy from surveillance by corporations and governments, as well as the financial plausibility of a Government-run $1.1 billion IT project,â€ he said.
â€œIn the United Kingdom, the Blair Government has been forced to put their proposed smartcard on hold due to overwhelming public opposition.â€
If Joe Hockey's proposal is as enlightened as it appears to be, I hope every technologist will help explain that our current systems are far from being ideal. We mustn't get too hung up on simply preventing deterioration of privacy through absurdist proposals, because the current bar is already too low for safety.
We need to follow Australia in being proactive about strengthening the fabric of privacy while achieving the goals of business and government.