Fri, 25 Aug 2023 - 12:43

Op-Ed - InnovationAus, 25 August 2023 - It’s time for the government to act on digital ID

Imagine if you could choose to have a digital identity established with a ‘trusted digital identity provider’ — and use that to apply for a passport, mobile phone, bank account or private health insurance plan, within seconds.

Imagine if such a system meant that your telco, or bank, or insurance company, no longer needed to store all of your personal data — in turn exposing you to the risk of a cyber hack and your personal data falling into the hands of criminals.

Imagine if you no longer had to bother with all the time consuming processes so often required today to prove that we are who we say we are.

No more having to make a photocopy of one or more identity documents. No more having to find a justice of the peace to certify the copy. No more having to physically take the copy into a bank branch.

All this is readily achievable — with a national digital identity system.

The economy-wide productivity and efficiency benefits would be enormous.

If you want proof, just look at the Aadhaar national digital identity system in India. Over 1.3 billion Indians now hold a digital identity — which has made it much quicker and easier to open bank accounts, to transfer money from one person to another, and to receive government benefits.

Yet while improving outcomes for citizens, it has also saved Indian taxpayers money by reducing fraudulent claims for social services benefits.

In Australia, the former Coalition government very much understood the benefits that a national digital identity system could provide — which is why we did so much work to progress this between 2013 and 2022, investing over $600 million.

As part of this we established myGovID. By late 2021, more than 6 million Australians were using it; today it is ten million. With myGovID, Australians can transact more quickly and easily deal with many parts of the federal government.

But the big prize will come when Australians can establish a digital ID and use this to transact with other levels of government, and with private sector businesses. This requires a legal framework to validate the operation of the digital ID and to allocate risks and liabilities.

In late 2021, the Coalition government issued an exposure draft of a bill which would set up this legal framework.

We established key design principles, including, critically, that citizens may choose to use a digital identity, but will equally be free not to do so. This must always be an issue of personal choice.

We also set up a peak level working group between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments. Close co-operation here will be key, because an identity system is built up based on an individual’s ‘credentials’, such as a driver’s licence, passport or birth certificate. Some of these credentials are issued by the Commonwealth and some by state and territory governments.

What is now needed is a determined push from the current government to get the digital identity system adopted. But unfortunately that is not happening. Instead, after twelve months, there is a lack of commitment and a sense of drift.

That was evident from comments made at a recent government services event by Finance minister Katy Gallagher. She gave no firm commitment to a legislative timetable, saying instead that the government was looking to have legislation in place by mid-next year, but she didn’t want to be held to that timeframe. The government would prefer to sit on its hands while millions of Australians face the risk of their data falling into the hands of state-based hackers and organised crime.

The only thing that Minister Gallagher could say with confidence is that there would be yet more consultation on digital ID — even though there have already been several rounds of consultation as part of the detailed work done by the previous Coalition government.

This simply looks like another attempt to delay.

Already confidence across industry is dropping. I have heard reports that private sector players previously interested in being a trusted digital identity provider are now reconsidering their position.

It is time for this government to commit to a national digital identity and to get it delivered.

Paul Fletcher is the shadow minister for government services and the digital economy