The Federal Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus, has encouraged state and territory governments to introduce new laws to combat identity theft but observers have cast doubt over their effectiveness.
The Minister hopes Australian states will create three identity crime offences that carry prison terms of between three and five years. The laws, according to the Minister, should be aimed at 'filling in the gaps' in current legislation, deterring potential criminals and providing redress for victims.
Debus recommended that making, supplying, using or possessing identity information — with the intention of committing an indictable offence — all become potentially indictable offences themselves. Possessing equipment capable of making false identification was also flagged as a possible offence.
"Identity crime is an international problem and while the true extent of it is unknown, a few years ago it was estimated to cost Australian business more than a billion dollars a year, a figure which has no doubt grown," said Debus in statement.
Making his proposal at the Standing Committee of the Attorney-General in Adelaide this week, Debus introduced a report which examined the nature, impact, extent and cost of identity crime. The report compared international responses to the problem.
"The notion of identity is central to almost every aspect of our lives, it affects relationships, reputation and livelihood, which is why when it occurs, people feel violated and vulnerable and individual victims can spend an average of two or more years attempting to restore their credit ratings," he said.
"It's useful for the law to try to keep up with changing technology, there is some value with the proposals, but the devil is in the detail," Dr David Vaile, executive director of The Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, said.
"It's an impossible problem to solve so any number of solutions will make sense if they appear to try to be going that little bit further but what we're seeing here is a blurring of the lines between identity theft and identity fraud — the two are separate crimes and there are some existing remedies to combat identity fraud," said Vaile.
Minister Debus said that the global, dispersed nature of identity crime made it all the more important to be governed by one set of standards.
"It is often a central element of trans-national crime, allowing criminal groups to fund their illegal activities across borders. It's therefore critical that the issue is dealt with in a uniform way by all jurisdictions," he said.
Maria Polczynski, partner at commercial law firm Henry Davis York, queried the timing of the announcement.
"The government has introduced these laws at a point in time where identity theft is clearly becoming more prevalent, and ironically the introduction of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act (AML/CTF) will only make it easy with the greater accumulation of personal details entailed with that," Polczynski said.
She described the AML/CTF legislation as a "boon" for identity thieves, and said it was logical that the government would set about trying to introduce identity theft deterrence laws at a time when people and businesses were coming to terms with AML/CTF.