An ID card by any other name?

Does the planned government health and welfare access card constitute an identity card?

commentary Does the planned government health and welfare access card constitute an identity card?
Iain Ferguson, News Editor, ZDNet Australia

And if not, does the card and associated systems provide a solid platform for the introduction of an Australia Card-style system down the track?

These are just some of a multitude of questions being posed in the light of yesterday's announcement that a smart card with photograph identity would be phased in for about 11 million Australians between 2008 and 2010 at a cost of about AU$1 billion.

While the card is technically non-compulsory, if you want to claim government benefits of any kind, you will have to sign up by 2010.

According to wire reports yesterday, the card will include a digital photograph, signature and card number on the front, while a chip will hold additional information such as address and date of birth. People have the option of including additional information such as emergency contact details, chronic illnesses, immunisation and organ donor status.

Senior Ministers are currently working to silence any alarm bells that ring immediately among large sections of the community, business and politicians within their own camps when the terms identity card or Australia Card emerge. There is already plenty of disquiet over the greater powers given to the police and other security agencies in the name of anti-terrorism in this country.

Prime Minister John Howard was very quick to make clear yesterday that Cabinet -- in approving the access card -- had ruled out a more draconian "compulsory national identity card" first flagged by Howard after the London train and bus bombings last year.

However, civil libertarians are not convinced, with the Australian Council for Civil Liberties arguing the move was the first of two steps towards introduction of an identity card and the Australian Privacy Foundation claiming the tying together of a range of functions on the card could pave the way for serious privacy breaches.

Amid the initial furore, the government is trying to head off the sort of heated, damaging debate that the planned introduction of a biometric identity card and associated national identity register database in the United Kingdom has sparked. The register in particular has raised the ire of politicians and many in the community alike, with the conservative opposition announcing plans to scrap the cards should they win government in 2010.

Howard said yesterday the government here had sought to strike the balance between ease of access, enhanced identity security and personal privacy.

The Department of Human Services is believed to have researched and rejected the UK model as part of that process, with cost blowout one of the critical reasons.

While fine details of the Australian system are still being worked out, it is believed a government services card registration database is expected to sit somewhere within Human Services -- but isolated from agencies such as Centrelink and Medicare, which will retain their own separate databases.

As it stands, the federal government plan is designed to tackle welfare fraud and generate savings through more efficient delivery of government services. This is a laudable aim. Where potential problems crop up is down the track in the event of, say, a substantial terrorist attack on Australian soil. A resulting change in public sentiment could tempt a government to employ the card for more intrusive types of citizen monitoring. The system Howard announced may not be an identity card per se. But it could become one.

What do you think? Is the health and welfare services access card a de-facto ID card? What issues does the government face in instituting the access card system? Could the card be transformed into an ID card down the track?E-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au and let us know.

Iain Ferguson is the News Editor of ZDNet Australia.

To take your opportunity to vent about what's bugging you in enterprise technology, visit ZDNet Australia's disaster recovery blog, penned by myself and journalist Steven Deare. The blog can be accessed at http://www.zdnet.com.au/blogs/disasterrecovery

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