The Australian government’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) has spent more than $200 million over the past five years developing a National Digital ID platform.
The quiet rollout of two government-owned digital identity platforms is a signal Australia could soon see a full launch of the concept, tech insiders suggest.
GOVPASS AND DIGITAL ID
Two mobile apps built on the DTA’s Trusted Digital Identification Framework (TDIF) have recently now been released to consumers after five years of testing. The apps, myGovID and Digital ID, are developed by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and Australia Post, respectively.
The new programs are set to streamline the ongoing ‘digital identity solution’ vision, including the TDIF, which in the absence of dedicated legislation, is used to govern the scheme.
$5.9 million of additional funding has been injected in the 2019-2020 mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, released for the DTA to continue the project until at least July 2020.
“The total approved investment in digital identity from its commencement in financial year 2015-16 to the end of financial year 2019-20 is $204.3 million,” the agency said.
At least $30 million has been siphoned off to the ATO and Services Australia to develop the two major IT platforms behind the solution: the myGovID digital identity credential and the exchange.
The identity exchange, which is operated by Services Australia, allows an individual to verify their identity without revealing personal information to a service provider using a “double blind”.
This includes Australia Post’s Digital iD service and in the future, the country’s banks and other regulated private sector entities to ensure the identity model is a whole-of-economy solution.
MyGovID, which progressed to public beta in June, can now be used to access a range of ATO services, including business portals, manager systems and online services for agents tax portal.
Despite surveys suggesting that fewer than one in four Australians have a strong understanding of digital identification, the push continues to introduce it as soon as possible.
An existing digital identity scheme for businesses called AUSkey will be retired and replaced with the new National Digital ID in March, and the DTA has recently put out a “Digital Identity Communication and Engagement Strategy”.
The TDIF is what’s known as a federated digital identification system. This means it relies on multiple organisations called Identity Providers, who act as central repositories for identification.
It involves downloading the app to your phone and providing your driver’s licence and passport details. A real-time selfie will be cross-checked with that information before being deleted, and an ID is created.
In essence, you identify yourself to the Identity Provider, which then vouches for you to third parties in much the same way you might use a Google or Facebook account to log in to a news website.
What that means is having a single point ID check that could theoretically be used across government services and, ultimately, for any service.
The difference in this case is that Identity Providers will control, store and manage all user information – which is likely to include birth certificates, marriage certificates, tax returns, medical histories, and perhaps eventually biometrics and behavioural information too.
Another weakness of the TDIF is that it doesn’t allow for releasing only partial information about a person. For example, people might be willing to share practically all their personal information with a large bank.
According to cyber security research fellow Patrick Scolyer-Gray, the federal government’s Digital Transformation Agency has been silently beavering away at creating a National Digital ID – and they’re ready to bring it online.
The government has invested to deliver the system that will ask for private sector involvement to create a “global solution” for verification checks when applying for things like loans.
“There’s no reason this can’t be the building block for a whole of economy solution to the digital economy,” Digital Transformation Minister Michael Keenan said.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Australia is helping to lead an increasing transition to the digital era, with some states already offering the option of holding a digital driver’s license, and programs like Digital iD, GovPass and facial recognition systems beginning to take shape on a national level.
A national ID – digital or otherwise – is a dogged idea that’s been pushed by governments as far back as Bob Hawke’s in the 1980s, and is designed to act as an individual’s single-entry access to just about every government service you can think of, plus more.
Ever since the Hawke government’s ill-fated Australia Card proposal in the 1980s, Australians have consistently viewed national identification schemes with contempt. Some have suggested that the DTA’s silence comes from fear of a backlash.
This led to mass protests and opposition across the country, famously culminating with the 1987 campaign against a national ID card.
Currently, the DTA is at public loggerheads with one of Australia’s most influential national security policy think tanks, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), over claims it’s GovPass digital identity rollout needs strict legislation to stop a Chinese-style social credit system.
A report from ASPI has found weak legislative protections, a lack of attempts at communicating the changes to the public, and the potential for the ID to “turbocharge” how private companies gather details about customers could mire the reform in controversy, much like the failed Australia ID Card:
ASPI says weak controls over businesses using the scheme risk laying the groundwork for an Australian, for-profit version of China’s “social credit scheme” using networks of CCTV and databases to monitor citizens, the think tank said in the report released on Thursday.
The DTA has previously rejected concerns that GovPass will be a repeat of the doomed Australia Card, instead arguing that it will be “privacy enhancing”.
As technology and policy towards biometric innovations continues to advance across the world, the inevitability is now clear: Digital identity and instant identification will soon become the new standard, and it is fast approaching.
History provides insight into of the numerous potential reasons for the DTA’s strategic opacity.
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