The Federal government calls it:
a ‘Human Services Access Card’, ‘SmartCard’ or even a ‘Consumer Card’ …

We call it for what it is:
The proposal for a national ID card system


The announcement ­ 26 April 2006

The Human Services ‘Access Card’ or ‘SmartCard’ project was approved by Federal Cabinet on 26 April 2006. The Government asserted that the ‘national ID scheme’ proposal that was being developed in Attorney-General’s Department has been both abandoned but also folded into this project. Yet it is trying to pretend that this is not an ID Card!

Unsurprisingly, no-one seems to believe the denials. To most people this looks like Australia Card Mark II, smells like Australia Card Mark II, and waddles like it too.

“But there is a euphemistic slipperiness about the access label that invites comparison with the Hawke government’s 1987 use of the Australia card, complete with gold and blue colours to convince us that it was a patriotic duty to accept its national ID plan.” Frank Devine, The Australian 19 May 2006

In what seemed like a ‘managed leak’, the story was broken by Louise Dodson in the Sydney Morning Herald and Steve Lewis in The Australian of Monday 26 April 2006, the day of the Cabinet meeting that was to approve this project. Already, by 10:28am that morning, the ABC reported that “The Australian Privacy Foundation says the introduction of a smart card will make it harder for people to protect their personal information”.

The Media Release duly arrived after the Cabinet meeting that afternoon. It was accompanied by a media conference, which appears to have contained about all the information that the Government had released at that stage. The statement was that ” we have decided not to proceed with the introduction of a compulsory national identity card. We are, however, very committed to the introduction of an access card for health and welfare services“.

Key features of the announcement were:

  • It’s to be (pseudo-)voluntary . “It will be necessary for everybody who needs the card to apply for one and it will not be compulsory to have the card, but by the same token, it will not be possible to access many services which are normally accessed by people unless one is in possession of the card … You only need to use the card if you are claiming a taxpayer benefit”. And “you don’t have to carry this card anywhere … And you won’t be required to produce it”. But then “But I don’t think any of us are saying that we don’t expect that in the end most people will want to have it”. So it’s pseudo-voluntary, i.e. compulsory, for at least 30-40% of Australians who receive benefits of some kind, and probably 100%, because it’s to be used for Medicare refunds;
  • There will be data visible on the card , but “it can’t be used to go into a pub. All it will say is, that this is John Citizen and this is John Citizen’s photo. It won’t have any of the details on the front of the card that a driver’s licence has”;
  • There will be data in the chip in the card : “the card has limited capacity in the chip”. “Will the card hold the details of the bank accounts in to which the payments or Tax File Numbers … Hockey: No, no, no doesn’t need to, no”. Hockey later spoke on radio about 64MB of storage, but he presumably meant 64KB. If so, that will leave only a tiny amount of space for optional data like blood group, allergies and medications;
  • It will be necessary to apply in order to get a card . This will involve a vast registration exercise, much queuing, a great many documents, and a photograph;
  • There are claims of massive savings : “on a conservative advice from our consultants KPMG, amount to something in the order of some $3 billion a year”, but this was Prime Ministerial error, and in two different ways. Firstly, it was corrected by way of a footnote to the transcript to “$3 billion over 10 years”, and secondly it was the largest figure in the KPMG, not the “conservative advice”, because the range in the KPMG report appears to have been $1.6-3.0 billion;
  • It will cost : “I’d be surprised if you had any change out of a billion dollars over a period of four years through its introduction”. That was the cost of Parliament House; and there was no mention of there being any operational costs.

The Australian Privacy Foundation issued a media release within 36 hours of the Government’s announcement, saying “The new government card looks like an ID card, smells like an ID card and works like an ID card, so why isn’t it called an ID card?”, and explaining what information was needed to enable the proposal to be subjected to evaluation by a sceptical public. On 25 May we issued another release after Minister Hockey reneged on an earlier promise to release enough information to permit assessment of the privacy risks posed by the proposal.

(See also Quacking like a duck: national ID Card proposal (2006) cf. Australia Card (1986-87) Prof Graham Greenleaf, 12 June 2006)

Initial reaction

Most of the media coverage was sceptical about the proposal. There was known to be serious dissent within Liberal ranks.

To the question ‘Should Australia introduce a compulsory ID card?’, the Channel 9 Sunday Poll showed 68% ‘No’. (Any such poll is unlikely to be statistically reliable, but it does show what people think when the bias in the question isn’t ‘service’ or ‘welfare fraud’, but instead ‘compulsory’).

Budget time

It became clear that the Government had side-stepped key recommendations in the KPMG report, when the AFR reported on 8 May 2006 that the task force head had resigned in dismay, not just from the task force, but from the public service as a whole, citing privacy, security and project governance concerns. A second senior taskforce design staffer resigned shortly after. This also raised concerns that Minister Hockey’s likely real reason for denying access to the reports and PIA was political self-protection.

Funding was included in the Budget of Tuesday 9 May 2006. And within 48 hours the machine swung into motion, without the head of its Task Force, without even vaguely adequate information available to the public, without a privacy strategy, and without any mechanism in place for consultation with public interest representatives and advocates.

On 11 May 2006, Hockey announced that “the technology would be able to help people meet supermarket bills when their only resources were emergency relief payments”. (The idea had been floated weeks earlier, and is considered by systems designers to be ill-informed, uninformed, unworldly, or just plain hare-brained). On 12 May, Hockey also said that “the smart card could be used in future to allow welfare payments to carry restrictions, such as allowing the purchase of groceries , but not cigarettes or alcohol”. On 24 May the SMH reported Minister Hockey calling it a ‘Consumer Card,’ which “the private sector would almost certainly be allowed to read”. State governments are apparently also to be invited to dream up uses for the card and its data-relational functions.

These statements appear to make abundantly clear that the Government’s policy includes approval of ‘function creep’, to extend the scheme to anything that ‘seems like a good idea at the time’.

Function creep is the start of the ‘Death March’ for massive IT projects, and this alarming official endorsement of open-ended function creep as an acceptable aspect of the project adds to existing expert concerns about the technical viability and ultimate cost of the system ­ let alone the expanded scope for further risks to personal information security and privacy introduced as everyone and their dog jumps into the trough.

Analysis of media reports

Before the Cabinet Meeting of 26 April:

  • ‘ID cards to foil fraud, terrorism’, Louise Dodson, Chief Political Correspondent, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2006:
    “A single”smart card” for every Australian adult, providing access to Medicare, welfare and tax benefits – while doubling as a national identity card – will be considered by federal cabinet today … Cabinet remains concerned about the cost, which would be more $1 billion, but it would also save money by cracking down on people cheating on welfare and other government benefits”
  • ‘Government photo-ID card for all Australians’ Steve Lewis, Chief Political Correspondent. The Australian, 26 April 2006:
    “ministers last night told The Australian a national identity card would not be implemented, despite the Prime Minister’s strong initial support. “There’s a lot more scepticism towards an ID card now,” a senior minister said. Ahead of the cabinet meeting today, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock will bring forward a discussion paper on the national ID card concept.

    But the consultant’s report is inconclusive and The Australian has learned there is only lukewarm support for the plan. Several sources, including cabinet ministers, argue it will be too intrusive and not provide sufficient safeguards in the fight against terrorism. Even Mr Howard has gone cold on the plan. However there is considerable support for the government services card, promoted by Human Services Minister Joe Hockey. Critics of the card argue it will be expensive to implement. Mr Hockey was asked by cabinet to commission a feasibility study on the smartcard.

    KPMG found in its report that it would cost up to $2.3 billion to implement the scheme over a decade. The accounting firm admitted it was difficult to accurately project the savings – likely to be made through clamping down on fraud – but said they could be as much as $1.5 billion“.

  • ‘Cabinet reignites smart card debate’, ABC News Online, 26 April 26 2006, 10:28am
  • ‘Govt remains divided over ‘smart card’ plan’, ABC National, The World Today, 26 April 2006, 12:33:00

Immediately after the Cabinet Meeting of 26 April:

    • ‘Cabinet approves smart card’, ABC TV News, 26 April 2006, 8:23pm (AEST):

      The Federal Opposition says it does not object in-principle to the idea of a new smart card but says there is not enough detail in today’s announcement. Labor’s human services spokesman Kelvin Thomson says he has serious concerns about privacy. “The Government has not done the work necessary to address the issues of security of data, quality of data and privacy of data and the question of other government agencies and departments accessing the information stored,” he said.

      “The president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman, … has described the smart card as a de facto ID card

    • ‘Liberal backbencher criticises smart card plan’, ABC News, 27 April 2006, 0:20am (AEST):

“Liberal Steven Ciobo is not convinced. “For all intents and purposes it would appear on the face of it as if this is effectively a card that all Australians will be required to have,” he said. “I think it fundamentally alters the balance between the state and the individual when you are required to have a card like this in order to access basic government services.”

The Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja says the Government can not be trusted on the issue. “And aspects of this so-called smart card proposal look like a national ID card by stealth,” she said

Labor say they support the card in principle but more consumer safeguards are needed.

  • ‘Official: national card due by 2010’, Louise Dodson and Stephanie Peatling, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2006:
    some of [Howard’s] ministers think of it as an identity card. Before the announcement the Treasurer, Peter Costello, referred to it as just that, and then corrected himself”
  • ‘PM can’t calm Coalition nerves on smart card’, Steve Lewis and James Riley, The Australian, 27 April 2006:
    ” The introduction of a national smart card with photo ID has upset Coalition MPs and privacy experts who believe it could develop into a national identity card by stealth … Liberal backbencher Steven Ciobo said the devil was in the detail with these types of proposal. The Queensland MP is concerned it could develop into a national ID card over time. … Similarly, Australian Privacy Foundation deputy chair David Vaile accused Mr Howard of “sophistry” in denying it was not an ID card”
  • ‘Smart card raises privacy concerns’, ABC News, 27 April 2006, 9:00am (AEST):
    “The Health Consumers Council in Western Australia has expressed concerns about privacy issues associated with the Federal Government’s new smart card”
  • ‘Smart card savings kept under wraps’, ABC News, 27 April 2006, 9:29am (AEST):
    ” Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott says the Government will not be releasing its report into the predicted savings that can be made from the introduction of a national smart card to combat welfare fraud””
  • ‘Details will clear up smart card concerns: Hockey’ ABC TV News, 27 April 2006, 3:43pm (AEST):
    “Mr Hockey says the critics do not have the full details” ­ the unmitigated gall of the man! He refuses to provide even what little he’s got!
  • ‘An ID card by any other name?’, Iain Ferguson, ZDNet Australia, 27 April 2006 03:52 PM
  • Australia Talks Back, ABC Radio National, 27 April 2006
  • Editorial, Herald Sun, 27 April 2006 (pro the card)
  • ‘That’s not an ID card …’, Laurie Oakes’ Comment on National Nine News, Friday 28 Apr 2006:
    “the government is treating us as fools by claiming it will not be compulsory”
  • ‘Police to get smartcard data’, James Riley and Simon Kearney, The Australian,
    28 April 2006: “ASIO and the Federal Police will be allowed routine access to the smart card database”. This includes the first mention of “the identity database attached to the smart card plan. … Called the Secure Common Registration System, the identity will also be used by other departments“.
  • ‘Smart card savings estimate to be released’, ABC News, Friday, April 28, 2006. 8:45am:
    “Hockey has told Channel 7 he believes a $3 billion saving is a conservative figure [which appears not to be supported by the KPMG report – but why listen to advisors?]. He says he will release the KPMG calculations once commercial material is removed
  • ‘Identity crisis’, Steve Burrell, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 2006

IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING the Cabinet Meeting of 26 April:

    • Channel Nine Sunday Poll, 30 April:
      Should Australia introduce a compulsory ID card? Yes – 32% No – 68%
    • ‘Smartcard heading for fall’, James Riley, The Australian IT Section, 2 May 2006:

      Gartner Asia-Pacific research vice-president Richard Harris said poor definition of project details by the Government was a serious concern. …

      This is going to be an extremely complex project anyway, because of the amount of integration work it requires,” [S2 Intelligence research principal Bruce McCabe] said. “What are the chances of it finishing on time and on budget? Virtually nil, if you look at the experience of other large projects. …

      The announcement was delivered with curious lack of detail for such a big-ticket item. That’s all the more surprising because of the enormous and well-known risks that large and complex IT projects carry. … “

      The prospect has alarmed the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has run a campaign opposing a national ID card as too expensive, too complex, and adding an extra layer of red tape for business to deal with. The chamber’s concerns are based on “the need to create a national identity register to cross-check with bearers of the card and the prospect that once introduced an identity card would be used for far more extensive purposes than originally intended.”

      With its central database of biometric photos, the access smartcard will be an almost perfect platform to extend into a national ID system, whether Mr Howard chooses to acknowledge it or not.”

    • ‘Bitten by control card’, Op-Ed Piece by Bill De Maria, The Courier Mail, 4 May 2006:
      ” The Government’s pursuit of a national identity card will hit the underprivileged”
    • ‘Smartcard will save ‘billions”, Garry Barker, The Melbourne Age Business Section, 8 May 2006:
      reports that Giesecke and Devrient (a large maker of cards), supports the proposal. What a surprise!
    • ‘Smartcard chief quits PS in disgust’, Geoffrey Barker, The Australian Financial Review, 8 May 2006:

“The head of the government’s smartcard technology taskforce has quit the public service, warning Human Services Minister Joe Hockey against financial management and privacy protection plans … Senior bureaucrat James Kelaher has urged Mr Hockey not to hold the project funding inside the Department of Human Services, and not to scrap a proposed external expert advisory board designed to provide an independent check on privacy and security issues …

Mr Kelaher’s concerns reportedly centre on moves apparently initiated by Mr Hockey and the secretary of the Department of Human Services, Patricia Scott, to run the project inside DHS and to put the money inside Centrelink and Medicare.Consultant teams led by KPMG and Mr Kelaher advised against these steps. Mr Hockey was reportedly told it would be preferable to hold the project management and money in a separate authority …

The proposal for an external [privacy and security] advisory board was central to advice provided to the government by KPMG which reported to cabinet on the business case for introducing the card. A sanitised version of the KPMG report is expected to be released soon”. So there were important political reasons why Hockey didn’t want to release the whole report

  • ‘Privacy Foundation: Put ID card “on hold immediately”‘, iTnews
    8 May 2006 15:50 AEST: “the APF’s vice chair, David Vaile, said the ID card project was not ready for a multi-billion dollar budget commitment, lacked proper governance – particularly in relation to personal data security and privacy issues – and was proceeding without adequate safeguards protecting both persons and information about them stored in online databases …, and on which such doubt has already been cast by one of its architects as well as by external experts.”
  • ‘Smartcard tenders tipped for this week’, James Riley, The Australian IT Section, 09 May 2006:
    Hockey promised “an extensive consultation program right across the board

On Budget Day, 9 May 2006:

After Budget Day, 10 May 2006 onwards:

  • ‘$1bn smart card to roll despite privacy swipes’, James Riley, The Australian, 11 May 2006:
    “The Human Services Department will advertise for a strategic technology partner in national newspapers tomorrow and Saturday” … “Hockey has promised “an extensive program of consultation right across the the whole project”; but “Mr Hockey has already started consultations with industry [and industry alone!!]
  • ‘Privacy officer to monitor smart card’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 2006 – 2:39PM:
    “Privacy concerns about a new health and welfare smart card will be monitored by a senior public servant” and “it’s no good if Coles and Orioles can’t access the card to find out if you’re entitled to emergency assistance”, Mr Hockey said
  • ‘Government begins search for smart card ‘advisors”, Munir Kotadia, ZDNet Australia, 11 May 2006 06:02 PM:
    “According to government documents, the registration system underpinning the card will be established separately from Medicare Australia, Centrelink and the Department of Veterans Affairs information systems “and will not hold any sensitive or agency-specific information”‘Disaster card plan triggers storm’, Mark Metherell, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 2006: “Hockey said the technology would be able to help people meet supermarket bills when their only resources were emergency relief payments”
  • ‘Australia budgets A$1.1B for smart-card development’, Michael Crawford, ComputerWorld (NZ), Friday, 12 May, 2006:
    “The Australian Computer Society is more concerned about the A$1 billion fund going to overseas vendors. ACS president Philip Argy wants Australians to be in the front line of the smart-card development. Argy met with Hockey to push domestic expertise in the smart card arena as opposed to foreign involvement. Argy says he has the personal assurance of Hockey that Australian expertise will be the first resort in developing the smart card for which costings have been predicted at between A$1 billion and A$5 billion. “Who better than our own professionals to ensure that the outcome of the report and the project is to best practice standards and in the best interests of the Australian public,” Argy says.”
  • ‘Commercial access on the cards’, James Riley, The Australian IT Section, 12 May 2006:
    ” Hockey’s Human Services department also said the smart card could be used in future to allow welfare payments to carry restrictions, such as allowing the purchase of groceries, but not cigarettes or alcohol”

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