[LINK] Access your areas
brd at iimetro.com.au
Fri Mar 9 08:27:50 EST 2007
Access your areas
March 9, 2007
A proposed government database containing photographs of all adult
Australians has privacy advocates worried, writes Mark Metherell.
WHEN a confused young woman was detained by the police in North
Queensland, she presented herself as Anna, a German tourist. During
nearly 11 months of detention, "Anna" eluded numerous attempts to
extract her real identity. The mentally ill woman turned out to be
Cornelia Rau, an Australian resident whose wrongful incarceration in
2004 generated a national outcry over the country's treatment of
The Rau saga is a spectacular case of lost identity that has been used
to illustrate the potential of Australia's most ambitious attempt yet to
store information about individuals on a national database. It is the
database the Federal Government needs to create what it calls the
"access card". Its most controversial feature is a photograph of the
cardholder that will appear on the card, and be stored both in an
electronic chip on the card and on a central databank.
Biometric technology will enable the photograph to be instantly matched
with the image stored on the smart card's national database. The
biometric photograph would "dramatically improve" the ability of
authorities to respond to cases like Rau's, says Patricia Scott, the
secretary of the Department of Human Services, which is responsible for
the $1.1 billion access card scheme to be implemented next year.
"We are confident that if Cornelia had been registered and had a card,
we would have been able to find her in our system," Scott says.
She told a Senate estimates committee hearing last month that such uses
of the access card would be in life-or-death situations, consistent with
a central aim to protect privacy.
To critics of the card, who fear it will inevitably become a national
identity card, the Rau example illustrates a disturbing potential.
Officialdom is armed with far-reaching investigative powers, including
those under tax law, anti-terrorism measures and the routine practice of
using computerised "data-matching" of government records to check an
individual's eligibility for welfare. Critics argue the card and its
photo database would expand that potential to reach deeper into
Revelations last year that hundreds of Centrelink and Tax Office staff
had been detected snooping into the files of thousands of citizens
deepened suspicions about the lengthening tentacles of bureaucracy.
Concerns sharpened this week with two pivotal players raising doubts
about the need for the photograph database.
Allan Fels, who heads the Government-appointed taskforce into consumer
and privacy issues raised by the access card, performed an about-turn on
his qualified support for photographs being used on the card. He now
says it should be optional. His reversal came after Brett Mason, the
Liberal chairman of the Senate committee examining the card legislation,
repeatedly expressed doubts about the used of the photographic database.
Mason's views can be expected to carry added weight among his
colleagues. A former barrister and criminologist, he wrote a book on the
subject: Privacy Without Principle - the Use and Abuse of Privacy in
Australian Law and Public Policy. It concludes: "In the politics of our
age 'security' eclipses 'privacy'. The personal is political … privacy
This week, the Government learnt just how political the issue of privacy
can become. The campaign against a photograph on the access card had
been largely carried by the Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja and
the Greens senator Kerry Nettle, backed by groups such as the Australian
But Mason's hesitancy could be fuel for a public backlash like that
which sank the proposed Australia Card in 1987.
Mason told the committee several times his reservations are grounded in
two dilemmas: the potential of the database to widen the risk of
intrusive and unreasonable use of information about individuals; and the
failure of government officials to persuade him of the need for a
photograph, signature and individual number to be printed on the card
Mason pressed Scott and police and intelligence chiefs to present
compelling evidence. After a 14-hour sitting of the committee on Tuesday
he was still waiting. The officials undertook to get back to the
committee, which is scheduled to file its report with the Senate by the
end of next week.
At times Mason seemed exasperated by the responses from Scott and the
director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation,
Paul O'Sullivan. Scott and O'Sullivan have said that nothing in the
legislation will change the formal arrangements that allow the
Australian Federal Police (normally with a search warrant) and ASIO (not
necessarily with a warrant) to demand personal information held by
Mason took exception to O'Sullivan's assurance that the legislation did
not change ASIO's access. That failed to recognise the position, Mason
said, that the access card would create "some very powerful
intelligence, for example potentially a photographic database of every
Australian … that is far, far more powerful".
While Scott rejected the notion that the photographic stockpile could be
linked with closed-circuit television systems to identify individuals in
a crowd, Mason remained worried about the long-term implications.
There were "all sorts of ramifications for privacy, particularly with
the growth of biometric photographic evidence and potential for crowds
to be scanned … everyone knows this is going to happen one day," Mason
Several times during the hearings he asked how a photo on the card would
serve the Government's two stated main goals: to make it easier to claim
health and welfare benefits; and to secure the system against fraud. He
asked why this was necessary when the image and other information in the
card's chip could be accessed electronically when the cardholder went to
government agencies, visited a doctor or collected a script from a
pharmacist. He was unconvinced by Scott's arguments that many people
wanted a photograph for identification purposes or could use it to claim
concessions on public transport or at cinemas.
Such considerations, he said, were ancillary to the principal purposes
of the card; it was these purposes that would need to justify the
inclusion of a photograph.
PROFESSOR GRAHAM GREENLEAF, a cyber law and privacy expert, says the
Privacy Act the Government cited as a protection against abuse of card
data is "quite defective" when it comes to "the largest collection of
sensitive personal information ever collected by the Commonwealth
Greenleaf, the co-director of the University of NSW's Cyberspace Law and
Policy Centre, and a veteran of the campaign to axe the Australia Card,
argues that the combination of more powerful technology and the growth
of practices such as data matching of personal information between
government departments makes the access card a more forbidding
proposition than its aborted predecessor.
"The whole combination of how the technology is being used to structure
the card in combination with the register and in combination with the
deficiencies in our privacy laws constructs too dangerous a mix,"
Greenleaf told the committee.
Measures to protect privacy, to allow for reviews and to deal with
hacking offences are to be included in a second tranche of legislation.
This has prompted criticisms from Stott Despoja that the Government was
rushing to adopt an incomplete system without properly finalised safeguards.
The first round of legislation has passed the House of Representatives,
but the number of tricky issues that have emerged during the committee
hearings suggests problems in the Senate, where it is to be debated this
month. The prospect of a qualified report from the Mason committee is
likely to further unsettle Government senators already nervous about a
reprise of the public response to the Australia Card.
The resignation last week of the human services minister, Ian Campbell,
was a further setback for the Government. His replacement, Chris
Ellison, becomes the third in three months to have responsibility for
the access card. Ellison has been handed a seriously complex and
politically sensitive issue just months before an election.
Photographs of 16.5 million adult Australians expected to sign up for
the card will enable use of ultra-sensitive facial biometric technology.
This measures and analyses physical characteristics - such as the exact
distance between the eyes - so minutely that even the subtle facial
differences between identical twins can be detected.
The Government has been at pains to counter suggestions the card will
inevitably become a national identity card, saying there would be heavy
fines and even imprisonment imposed on companies or individuals
demanding the card for identification purposes against the wishes of the
cardholder. Cardholders would not be required to carry it at all times
and it would be "voluntary" - provided that citizens were prepared to
forgo government payments, such as pensions and Medicare benefits.
Officials authorised to access personal data would only be able to look
at the information relevant to their individual agency, the Government
says. Each agency would have a separate, secure silo of information.
Medicare staff, for example, would be able to look only at an
individual's Medicare transactions and not at the individual's
Centrelink or Veterans Affairs data.
Campbell denied there were any plans to use the biometric photograph for
welfare fraud investigations. Asked why the Government would not use
such an innovation to help investigations, he said: "That's not its
purpose. Its purpose is to identify you when you come into the
The aim of the access card legislation was to limit its use as an
identity card, he said.
His comments are in contrast to the growing use of optical surveillance
to monitor suspected welfare fraudsters. In such investigations
Centrelink hires private firms to monitor and collect video evidence of
welfare recipients suspected of earning other income. Last financial
year 2348 people were the subject of such surveillance, resulting in a
cut to welfare fraud that generated $24.1 million in savings, Centrelink
The Government supports its case with a KPMG report that says the new
card might prevent fraud of up to $3 billion over 10 years, "a very
The Fels taskforce has acknowledged the photograph would be a "major
factor" in preventing fraudulent health and social service activities.
However, "the taskforce recognises that the compilation of the first
national photographic database of (virtually) all adult Australians,
which will result from this policy decision, is a significant feature of
the new access card arrangements. This is substantially more than an
'incremental' or irrelevant change to current policy and practice", the
taskforce said in its first report on the card, in September.
"No previous Australian government, even in wartime, has effectively
required all its citizens to give it a physical representation of
themselves, nor contemplated having this story in one national database."
Campbell suggested privacy safeguards satisfied public concern: "The
classic answer in the vox pops I have read is, 'If you have got nothing
to hide what have you got to be afraid of?' Most Aussies want to do the
BOTH SIDES OF THE CARD
* It streamlines claims for benefits from Medicare, Centrelink, Veterans
Affairs and 14 other agencies, all using separate cards, making it
faster and simpler for claimants.
* Biometric photograph on the surface, in the card chip and on a central
register makes fraud, at present costing $1.4 billion to $2 billion a
year, much harder.
* Cardholders have option of including medical emergency details, organ
donor status and contact details, which can be accessed by hospitals, on
the card chip.
* The card could be used to check eligibility for other concessions,
such as public transport and cinema discounts.
* Biometric photograph held on register will make it potentially easier
to identify and trace people in danger, or who have gone missing.
* The Government says it will heavily penalise non-authorised people and
firms demanding card for identification purposes, but privacy
campaigners say this will be hard to check, and card will inevitably
morph into a national identity card.
* The Government says the card will not be compulsory, but people will
need it to claim Medicare, welfare and veterans' benefits.
* The photograph, number and signature on the card opens the way for
identity theft, although the Government says technologically
sophisticated system will make this extremely difficult.
* Critics say having a photograph, number and signature on card's
surface is not necessary as official reading devices could access such
data from the chip.
* The introduction of a data bank of 16.5 million photographs increases
the potential scope for use by authorised intelligence and law
enforcement agencies to check identities, and abuse by unauthorised
officials. But the Government says there are no plans to link its photo
store to closed-circuit television monitors.
brd at iimetro.com.au
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