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How the digital ID bill became a lightning rod for conspiracy theories

The Senate passing the Albanese government's digital ID bill has led to widespread fearmongering.

The Senate passing the Albanese government's digital ID bill has led to widespread fearmongering. Photo: Getty

The Albanese government’s digital ID bill has become a lightning rod for conspiracy theories and fearmongering, despite it being “world’s best practice” and “completely sane,” privacy and security experts say.

Several Coalition and crossbench politicians claimed the bill was an attempt to introduce a Chinese Communist Party-style social credit score and a measure to control the public, despite no evidence or factual basis, after it passed the Senate.

“This could very comfortably be tied in with a central bank digital currency or with a social credit score,” Alex Antic, a Coalition senator for South Australia, said.

“We’ve heard overtures about systems being voluntary before, but we know what governments do when they get centralised control.”

The bill will create a voluntary digital ID system that allows a person to avoid providing copies of identification documents like driver’s licences, passports and birth certificates when interacting with businesses and government agencies.

The Albanese government rammed the legislation through the Senate without debate and now it must pass the House of Representatives, where Labor has a majority, to become law.

Best practice

Stephen Wilson, founder of Lockstep Technologies, said the “world’s best practice” legislation will help reduce identity theft by reducing the over-collection of data by businesses and government agencies.

“We just use plain data for identification and that’s why there is a black market in stolen data,” he said.

“If we had better confidence in the core data, my Medicare number should be useless to criminals and with this ID technology, it will become useless.”

He said if people stopped and spent the time to understand the problem that is trying to be solved, they would realise it is a “completely sane” solution.

“When a minister stands up and says we’re not going to collect any new data, we’re going to keep using the IDs that we already have and there will be no Australia Card, it can sound too good to be true,” Wilson said.

“The technology, the final piece of the puzzle, is very familiar already because 40 per cent of people are using digital wallets already.”

In the 1980s, authorities proposed the compulsory Australia Card as a national identification card for citizens and residents.

It sparked controversy and eventually led to the legislation of Australia’s Privacy Act.

Nicole Stephensen, partner at IIS Partners, said it is important to recognise that the digital ID is not the same concept as the Australia Card.

“There’s been a fair bit of rhetoric around the overreach of government and the movement towards a surveillance state,” she said.

“The digital ID is not a vehicle for the government to track or trace or otherwise surveil the Australian population, rather it’s the use of available technology to address how Australians interact with service providers.”

Genuine concerns

Critics of the bill have created a false narrative about what the bill will introduce, ranging from tracking citizens purchases to “preventing access to government services, banking services, air travel and major purchases for any Australian who does not have a digital ID”.

Stephensen said the bill includes exceptions for access to the digital ID system by law enforcement and national security agencies, which could cause concern.

“I want to acknowledge that they have taken steps in terms of drafting the bill to address that concern by limiting law enforcement access, by way of requiring warrants for the information,” Stephensen said.

“As a privacy expert, I’m not sure whether this goes far enough because Australians already do feel concerned about government overreach into their private lives.”

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) oversees privacy and freedom of information in Australia, but has suffered from underfunding in recent years.

Stephensen said even with a digital ID scheme and strong legislative control, it means nothing for privacy if there isn’t meaningful oversight.

“What we have seen over previous years improvements to the privacy landscape in Australia is that the OAIC is inadequacy funded,” she said.

“If this and various legislation are intended to support and enhance privacy rights in Australia, those are only going to be effective if the regulator can provide timely and responsive levels of oversight.”

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