On the House - A matter of privacy

In 1987, the Hawke Labor Government was forced to abandon plans to introduce an Australia Card ID. So what's changed?

The proposed function of the card -- to replace existing government ID systems and to provide the Australian Taxation Office with access to a wider range of information about income sources -- had seemed innocuous enough at first blush. But as privacy and consumer groups subjected the Australia Card Bill to closer scrutiny, it began to look far more sinister.

Privacy advocate Professor Graham Greenleaf described the components of the Australia Card -- including the card, the unique number, the Australia Card Register and the telecomms links between government agencies and arms of the Card scheme -- as "the building blocks of surveillance".

Eventually mass public protests, civil disobedience and a party revolt forced the Government to scrap the ID proposal.

Now the Howard Government's Gatekeeper strategy, designed to regulate electronic transactions between agencies and citizens, has come under heavy fire from privacy interests, some of whom have likened it to the Australia Card and numbers of whom have expressed fears it could seriously compromise privacy protection.

The Australian Privacy Foundation said after its launch it feared the strategy could give birth to an "Online Australia Card", where a single identifier would follow a citizen's every transaction with the Government and make it much easier for Government to profile individuals.

Greenleaf also stepped back into the fray, saying as "first cab off the rank" in establishing a key part of Australia's PKI (public key infrastructure) the standards set by the GPKI could become the norm for all types of authenticated and encrypted transactions. This in turn could become a subtle device to obtain methods of surveillance that it would be difficult to achieve directly through legislation.

OGIT head Glynis Roper rejected the claims, saying OGIT had "picked up the key concerns" of the privacy advocates and insisted there would not be any central repository of information on individuals.

She said OGIT had had a major briefing session with the privacy advocates in April and that OGIT had incorporated their concerns in a chapter of the report addressing privacy issues. But she initially declined to give assurances privacy advocates would be represented on the new Government Public Key Authority.

Now, however, OGIT has bowed to calls that privacy and consumer groups be represented, and at the time of writing it was about to nominate its preferred privacy representative. It is to be congratulated for that decision.

But this representation must not be a mere token. If Australians are to have the confidence to do business with government online, OGIT must address all the concerns of the privacy advocates as it completes the Gatekeeper work.

As Graham Greenleaf posited in response to the Gatekeeper Report: "The GPKA requires direct representation of consumer / privacy interests if we are to have any confidence that these interests will not be ignored when the real decisions are made. In the absence of this, it is difficult to see the GPKI as anything other than a danger to privacy. With it, the jury will at least still be out."

Sue Bushell is a Canberra-basedpolitical correspondent

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