Ruddock hints at Australia Card

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Thursday, February 2, 2006

China ID card, containing a integrated circuit chip.

Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock says he may introduce plans to make Australian citizens carry an identity card to avert terrorist attacks. "I'll make an announcement soon and that could be this week," Ruddock said. "It depends upon when I'm fully satisfied about the issues that we want examined."

According to a recent poll of 1200 people, over 50 percent would support a national identity card. A Newspoll in The Australian newspaper found that 31 per cent of voters were opposed to the ID card.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard refloated the possibility of an "Australia Card" after the July 7 London suicide bombings. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is considering introducing cards identifying Britons by fingerprints and iris scans.

Australia last debated a national ID card (to cut down on tax avoidance), the Australia Card, in 1987, but was defeated in the Senate after public outrage. Mr Howard, then in opposition, opposed the card, but now says times have changed. "This is an issue that ought to be back on the the wake of something like the terrible tragedy in London," Howard told a news conference in June last year.

Australia has been on medium terror alert since 2001. While there hasn't been a major terrorist attack on Australian soil, Prime Minister John Howard says it's a "possibility."

Mr Ruddock is expected to announce this week the terms of an independent inquiry into an ID card, citing national security and fraud prevention as key concerns. The inquiry will investigate the possible benefits of such a card in combating terrorism and fraud, and whether it could be introduced at a reasonable cost.

Opposition public accountability spokesman Kelvin Thomson said he was unsure whether it would help Australia's fight against terrorism as there was no great evidence to suggest ID cards assisted those countries that already had them.

Australian Privacy Foundation chief Anna Johnston said the poll was good news for those who opposed the ID card. She said the lower level of support for the ID card compared with 1986 showed that people were better informed.

"I would suggest that this shows the Government is already on very shaky ground on this proposal if there is only this very small majority of people in favour of it," Ms Johnston said. "Because as more details emerge about what is actually being put forward, support will drop."

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, said that policy should not be dictated by public opinion.

Advocacy groups say that work had already started on creating a coalition of lobby groups in readiness for a campaign. "We're starting to marshall our resources now," Ms Johnston said. "Like the Australia Card debate, we are looking to establish a broad coalition of people across the political spectrum and from all walks of life."

Ruddock's comments have been slammed by security experts, who say national ID cards do not make Australia any safer and could have the opposite effect.

James Turner, security analyst at Frost & Sullivan Australia, said: "ID cards cannot protect us from terrorism because an ID card cannot indicate intention. It's like signature based anti-virus, the AV signature can only point out the currently known viruses; and an ID card can only identify currently known baddies."

Jo Stewart-Rattray, director of information security at Vectra Corporation said: "As far as its goal being to protect us from terrorist attacks, I don't think so. The bad guys will always find a way to propagate their own version of these cards. It is not protecting us against terrorist attacks by any means."

Stewart-Rattray's comments echoed those of ex-MI5 chief Dame Stella Rimington, who recently said ID cards were "useless" at fighting terrorism. "If we have ID cards at vast expense and people can go into a back room and forge them they are going to be absolutely useless. ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don't think they are necessarily going to make us any safer," said Rimington.

Bruce Schneier argued that ID cards will not help improve security and would have the opposite effect. He says the card will require an "immense database" with "enormous" security risks.

"The security risks are enormous. Such a database would be a kludge of existing databases; databases that are incompatible, full of erroneous data, and unreliable. As computer scientists, we do not know how to keep a database of this magnitude secure, whether from outside hackers or the thousands of insiders authorised to access it," wrote Schneier.

Roger Clarke, of the Australian Privacy Foundation asked whether the "billions it would cost would be worth it", especially considering the "enormous intrusions into the affairs of the majority of law-abiding citizens".

According to Privacy International, around 100 countries have compulsory identity cards. They also stated that "virtually no common law country has a card".