Australians smart over card launch

Name, age and serial number please. Australia is about to adopt an identity card - of sorts.

Details of the card will emerge in next month's budget, but Prime Minister John Howard said this week it would not be a national ID card.

The Government had considered one such card in the wake of the London bombings last year but decided "it was not predisposed to adopt a national ID card".

Mr Howard admitted in almost the same breath that if people wanted access to Government health and welfare programmes from 2010, they would need one.

"It will not be compulsory to have the card, but by the same token it will not be possible to access many services unless one is in possession of the card," Mr Howard said.

Treasurer Peter Costello tripped up this week, calling it an ID card, only to quickly correct himself.

The "smart card" will contain name, photo, signature and card number. On a microchip will be embedded a digital photo, address, date of birth and details of children or other dependants.

The card will replace 17 current cards for health benefits, family tax, childcare and unemployment payments, education benefits, pharmaceutical and transport concessions and pensions.

The Government estimates it will cost A$1 billion ($1.20 billion) over four years to adopt but thinks it will save A$3 billion over a decade.

Authorities will be able to use the card to check for immigration and security breaches and welfare fraud.

Information on the card will be subject to strict protection and only be accessible by authorised people, Mr Howard said.

Intelligence agencies will have access to the large database of biometric photos on the cards, and state police would have restricted access for general crime investigations.

Mr Howard claimed the card decision showed a balance struck between ease of access to government payments and enhanced security measures on the one hand and legitimate concerns about storing personal information on the other.

Civil libertarians and privacy agencies did not see it that way.

The vice-chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation, David Vaile, was not convinced the card was not an ID card.

"It looks like an ID card, it smells like an ID card," he said.

"If you find that there's state government uses added to it, that all of those 17 cards and whatever else gets bunged on to it later are required in the federal sphere, you may very well find it difficult to go out without it.

"It's very hard to see what the limitations would be on it."

But the overall reaction has not been on the scale when Bob Hawke pushed for a national ID card in 1987 when he was leading the country, perhaps signalling acceptance that so much personal information is already accessible these days.

New Zealand has resisted an identity card, and in Britain a proposal is still being debated after the House of Lords overturned a government plan in March for anyone applying for or renewing a passport to also pay for an identity card.


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