Digital identity: minister hits back at naysayers and privacy 'alarmists'

By Harley Dennett

November 12, 2018

It’s not clear if the federal minister responsible for the first myGovID pilot program is listening to those raising privacy concerns, but he’s clearly become annoyed it’s been called ‘Big Brother’.

Comparing the recent uptick in the Australian public’s privacy worries to past concerns about technology initiatives, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan says history has proven the alarmists wrong.

In response to Fergus Hanson’s analysis at ASPI, which was titled ‘Preventing another Australia Card fail’ and paired comment piece in the Australian newspaper, which was given the headline ‘Big Brother given new access to Australians’ personal data’, Keenan says he expects to face disapproval.

In a response opinion article, Keenan notes that calls of ‘Big Brother’ are often associated with technology progress:

“If we were to continually yield to the views of the naysayers, we would still be lining up in queues at airports to have our passports checked, rather than breezing through using biometric SmartGates.

“Out of interest, I went back and looked at media reporting from the mid-2000s when the merits of SmartGates were still being debated.

“It was ‘Big Brother’ at its worst according to one commentator. Another claimed the technology would never work and was doomed to be an expensive failure.

“History has proven the alarmists wrong. No doubt it will do so again when it comes to myGovID.”

Few researchers who criticise the handling of a government program ever get a direct response — not unless reporters are consistently in a minister’s face demanding one — and that makes this response notable in itself.

The response is also quite personal. Keenan notes that the Digital Transformation Agency spent time with Hanson, but their point of view was not reflected in the final paper, which he describes as “not, in any way, an objective appraisal of the program”.

Last year the federal human services portfolio released personal information about another critic who raised concerns about the social cost of its technology initiatives. On the rationale of correcting the record, her private Centrelink information was released to a retired journalist, who used it in an opinion article titled ‘Centrelink is an easy target for complaints but there are two sides to every story’.

At the time, legal and social security advocacy groups argued this new practice of handling critics would further undermine public confidence.

Stemming further loss of public confidence was Hanson’s argument about myGovID too:

“To help restore public confidence in digital initiatives after a string of failures, the introduction of this reform needs to be accompanied by an overhaul of citizens’ and consumers’ rights so that they’re fit for purpose in the 21st century.”

That was also a key recommendation from Peter Harris’ data inquiry at the Productivity Commission.

Keenan says they’ve consulted with thousands of people during the development of myGovID, and the system is currently opt-in and “is aligned” with all the government’s current privacy and security frameworks.

The latest Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey, conducted last year, found 69% of Australians say they feel more concerned about their online privacy than they did five years ago, and 83% believe privacy risks are greater online than offline.

READ MORE: First look at the new myGovID in action as Tax File Number trial begins

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