Privacy Should be Our Choice

Privacy, as Victorian Privacy Commissioner Paul Chadwick recently observed, is a freedom most noticed in its absence. Sadly, we only seem to appreciate what we had once it’s gone.

Philosophers, having long accepted the inadequacy of words to explain the importance of privacy, often illustrate it with 18th century thinker Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.

The panopticon is a circular building divided into cells constructed around a central tower. While occupants are isolated from one another by walls, they can be viewed by an unseen observer.

A prison? Absolutely, but more than this the building was designed to obtain “power of mind over mind by creating a”sentiment of an invisible omniscience", or what you and I might describe as the unnerving uncertainty that someone could be watching you.

The value of privacy is only grasped when we recognize that even if the surveyors do nothing with the information they gather about cell occupants – neither recording nor relaying it – it is their power to observe us if and when they choose that causes harm.

The Federal Government announced last April its intention to pursue what is in all but name a national identity card. The scheme has the capacity to compromise our privacy in relationship to government, and the mega-corporations (among them Unisys, Visa and IBM) expected to vie for the lucrative privilege of providing the technology to merge, match and share our personal information across the public and private sectors.

Current proposals suggest my card will contain my unique identifying number and name on the front, as well as my signature and biometric photo. The smart chip will contain – among other things – my address, my date of birth and details of my children and other dependants. These details are mandatory, must reside in the “public” zone of the card, and are protected by a PIN so insecure that the Australian Privacy Foundation has condemned the card’s technological design as “completely inadequate”. In other words, according to the parts of the legislation the government has made public, anyone with a card reader will be able to see the private details stored on my card’s chip.

This includes hundreds of thousands of government employees, health and allied professions and childcare workers. Last year Centrelink revealed it had to sack, sanction or turn over to the police or government prosecutors 2% of their staff for breaches of “customer” privacy.

Some people object to identity cards on principle. They, like Liberal party official Tim Warner, believe that by forcing us to prove our identity to obtain government services, ID cards invert the master servant relationship of citizen and government. Governments only confirm such fears when they contend that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

I agree with such principles, but my objection to the card is more practical.

I advocate for reproductive rights. Each year I spend time and money protecting my phone number (it’s silent), my address (not on the electoral rolls), and the names, ages and other identifying details of my children. I do this because a handful of my opponents are violent, as the murder of a security guard at the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic in 2001 proved. As far as possible, I try to protect my family from the negative repercussions of my activism.

Minister for Human Services Joe Hockey says that when it comes to the card, Australians have choice. We don’t have to have the card at all. As well, he says that the card mandates the same information found on a driver’s license. If the system is cracked – something he has repeatedly refused to guarantee won’t happen – citizens lose no more than they do when their wallets go missing.

First, it is disingenuous to say that participation in the new identity card system is voluntary. No card means no Medicare rebates, PBS medicines, Centrelink payments, Veteran’s pensions, disability benefits, carers’ payments, baby bonus, AusStudy, unemployment benefits or related concessions on public transport and utility bills. Unless we are independently wealthy, we will need to sign up.

The wallet story also mischaracterizes reality. I lose mine with absent-minded-professorial regularity and usually, someone nice returns it to me intact.

When they don’t, or its been deliberately nabbed, the loss of my silent number or information about my children has never been a concern. This is not only because, like most people, I don’t keep this information in my wallet, but because even if I did, it would be unlikely to be of interest to an opportunistic thief: something that can’t be said about the high-tech robbers expected to attempt to break in to the honeypot of identity card data.

Like much that is lost, neither the privacy of my silent number or address can be found again. Like a victim of domestic violence, at similar risk to having their safety jeopardized by exposure of their address details, getting a new number and shifting house are the only way to regain my security. At least it’s something. The privacy of my children’s details is gone forever.

All of us are at risk of such irrecoverable loss of our private identifying details and – because the database will hold our biometric data and copies of our proof of identity documents like passports and birth certificates – identity theft. No matter how state of the art the security designed to protect it, the very nature of the IT wars – the battle for supremacy between security geeks and crackers – means security risks to the system will be perpetual and very real. Steal my credit card, I cancel it and get another. But what next when a cyber-crim knocks off the biometric parameters of my face?

Current proposals for an Australian identity card put my security and that of my family at risk. However, one should not need to demonstrate such a threat to claim the right to enjoy the benefits of privacy. The balance is all wrong. The question isn’t whether citizens have something to hide. The question is whether the government is entitled to demand, record, sift, sort, match and share our private information and biometric identifiers without making a solid case for why this is necessary, how it will work, and why less invasive approaches won’t do.

The kick-off date for card issuing is April or May 2008. Time is fast running out for Australians to say “no”.

Publication history

Privacy Should be Our Choice  The Age