The Mandarin: The social impact of digital ID

A national, government-regulated digital ID scheme certainly presents advantages. It simplifies the process of verifying our identities online and reduces the number of organizations with which we must share our personal information. However, Human Rights groups have begun considering the long-term implications of such a system, calling for greater protection of peoples rights. 

Michelle Falstein, a lawyer and an executive member of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL), has some concerns.

“By linking personal identities across federal, state and local governments and the private sector, the federal government will have complete oversight of the lives of Australians,” Falstein says.

“The COVID pandemic ushered in a period of rapid normalisation of the sharing of personal information by Australians. Australians surrendered, and continue to surrender, their data, enabling mass collection, linking and storage of sensitive data by Australian governments and other online organisations … 

“Australians will now have to trust that government will use that information wisely and for their benefit.”

Falstein describes the digital ID scheme as a part of a broader trend of increasing ‘datafication’ of Australians’ lives.

“This trend raises concerns about the concentration of power and information in the hands of government or corporate entities, with potential implications for democracy, autonomy and individual rights. 

“The NSWCCL emphasises the need for responsible data governance frameworks that prioritise privacy, security and ethical use of data.”

While the NSWCCL welcomes the codification of the Australian Government Digital Identity System (AGDIS), it says the proposed digital ID scheme falls short when it comes to protecting people’s rights. 

Falstein calls for more robust safeguards, including strong data protection measures, clear consent mechanisms, independent oversight and avenues for redress in case of data breaches or misuse. The use of biometric technology should be avoided if possible, she says.

“Entire segments of the Australian population have every right to be fearful that this technology could have significant implications for their welfare, privacy and security. Biometric information can’t be easily replaced or managed if compromised in a data breach and is fodder for identity fraud.”

Developing an ID scheme that protects civil liberties would be easier if we had an agreed baseline to begin with, the NSWCCL says. The bill should not be passed until a revised Privacy Act is enacted. And what Australia really needs is an enforceable human rights framework, such as a Bill of Rights. 

Other OECD countries implementing digital identity systems have one but we don’t, Falstein says. “Australia is the only liberal democracy lacking such a framework.”

Falstein says several other groups in society might also have reasons to be concerned about the introduction of digital ID: those facing barriers to accessing and managing their digital identities, leading to potential exclusion or exploitation.

These include the homeless, refugees, the Indigenous population, people with limited digital literacy, those in regional areas with limited internet infrastructure, and those already at risk of discrimination or surveillance.

“Attaining a digital identity can’t be a precondition to accessing basic services and rights,” she says.

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