The Federal government calls it a ‘Human Services Access Card’

We call it for what it is: a National ID Card System

Frequently Asked Question No. 8

What’s a ‘National Identification Scheme?’

Definition of a National Identification Scheme

An identification scheme is an arrangement whereby an organisation can relate data in its databases with a particular person. An example is a customer-number used by a company to keep track of its customers.

In some circumstances, an identifier might be used for multiple purposes. For example, some people have the same username when they log in to different computer systems. This is convenient. And it creates some risks, e.g. because someone who can impersonate you in one situation (e.g. when you are playing computer games) may be able to impersonate you in the other situation as well (e.g. by using your Internet banking service, and operating on your bank account).

Many countries, particularly in Europe, run multi-purpose schemes. These are usefully described as ‘inhabitant registration schemes’. Their purposes are tightly limited to a small number of specific applications, typically taxation administration, social benefits administration and insurance, and health insurance. They involve much bigger risks. However, there do not appear to have been any gross abuses since World War II when the registers enabled the Nazi regime to discover thousands of Jews, leading to the deaths of most of them.

A National Identification Scheme is different from such single-purpose schemes and ‘inhabitant registration schemes’. It is a general-purpose scheme, designed to achieve consistent and reliable identification of humans, throughout a country, particularly in relation to their relationships with governments and government agencies, but also in their relationships with private sector organisations. They involve huge risks to individuals, to society, to the economy, and to democracy.

National identification schemes are associated with authoritarian regimes in such countries as Soviet Russia, South Africa under apartheid, and today in Malaysia and Singapore – societies in which people are tightly controlled, and which Australians frown upon as un-free countries.

An example of a failed attempt to create a national identification scheme is the Australia Card scheme that was proposed by the Hawke Government, and defeated by the Coalition when they were in Opposition in 1987. That proposal is described in Greenleaf & Nolan (1986) and Clarke (1988).

Characteristics of a National Identification Scheme

A general-purpose national scheme features some token such as a card, but that is only a fraction of what’s involved. The elements of a National Identification Scheme are described in considerable detail in Clarke (2006), as follows:

  1. A Database
  2. A Unique Signifier for Every Individual
    1. A ‘Unique Identifier’
    2. A Biometric Entifier
  3. An (Id)entification Token (such as an ID Card)
  4. Quality Assurance Mechanisms
    1. Mechanisms for (Id)entity Authentication
    2. Mechanisms for (Id)entification
  5. Widespread Use
    1. Widespread Data Flows Containing the Identifier
    2. Widepread Use of the (Id)entifier
    3. Widespread Use of the Database
  6. Obligations
    1. Obligations Imposed on Every Individual
    2. Obligations Imposed on Many Organisations
  7. Sanctions for Non-Compliance


Here are the APF’s Resources on National Identification Schemes.

If you are aware of errors or omissions in this document, please let us know.

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