‘Voluntary’ Digital ID Could Become Mandatory in Practice: Senators

The bill provides ‘no protection against the creeping expansion of the digital ID requirements,’ argued two Coalition senators.
‘Voluntary’ Digital ID Could Become Mandatory in Practice: Senators
An image of the phone app and front page to Australia's MyGov ID (digital ID) portal and website, taken in Perth, Western Australia on Jan. 22, 2024. (Wade Zhong/The Epoch Times)

Two Coalition senators have expressed concerns that in practice, the national digital ID will not be voluntary, despite government reassurances.

The comment was made in a report published in February by the senate standing committees on economics on the Digital ID bill 2023 and the Digital ID (transitional and consequential provisions) Bill 2023.

The digital ID bill, which was introduced in Nov. 30, 2023, aims to establish an accreditation scheme for entities providing digital ID services and expand the national digital ID into an economy-wide system.

In September, 2023, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher described the digital ID “an easy way of verifying who you are online, against existing government-held identity documents without having to hand over any physical information.”

She emphasised that the bill would be “secure, convenient, voluntary, and inclusive.”

“An essential aspect of Digital ID is that it continues to be voluntary for individuals accessing government services,” Ms. Gallagher said.

“Government will need to continue to provide alternate channels for people to access services and we are committed to doing just that.”

‘Creeping Expansion’

However, National Senator Matt Canavan and Liberal Senator Gerard Rennick argued the government’s bill provided “no protection against the creeping expansion of the digital ID requirements.”

They said that under the bill, businesses can require the use of a digital ID if it is “appropriate to do so.”

“If the government is serious about claiming that its digital ID scheme is ‘voluntary,’ it is not clear why it cannot limit exceptions to its voluntary standard to a narrow, prescribed list of circumstances.”

“Even for those businesses that do not receive an exemption, the bill provides no requirement for an organisation to provide non-digital ID services on a similar basis.”

They outlined a scenario where a bank could make it difficult for a customer seeking to use traditional identification documents to open an account by, for example, making them wait weeks for an appointment.

“There are no protections in the bill that would stop a business just making life hard for its customers that choose a non-digital ID option.”

The Bill seeks to provide some examples of where a digital ID may be required to be mandatory. But there is no limitation on the regulator’s powers aside from a vague and open-ended condition that it can only be made mandatory in “appropriate” circumstances.

Similar concerns were also aired by Digital Rights Watch.

The organisation said in its submission that in situations where digital ID is mandatory, it would “essentially cut off a proportion of the population from accessing those services.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Retail Credit Association (ARCA) noted that exemptions could result in digital exclusion as the bill doesn’t prevent private companies excluding the acceptance of traditional forms of ID.

“Some businesses might choose to decide only to accept digital ID as a way to minimise their risk of collecting data on individuals, or because it is a more reliable form of identity,” ARCA said.

Committee’s Comment

The committee recognised the exact concerns raised by the two Coalition senators.

They noted that the digital ID will fail if it lacked public credibility surrounding its voluntary status.

But the committee also noted that the bill struck the “right balance between facilitating businesses to participate in the system, while ensuring that individuals have a free, voluntary choice whether they chose to obtain or when they use a digital ID.”

CyberCX welcomed the bills as a “positive development for government, citizens and industry.”

“From a cyber security perspective, a voluntary system that reduces the need for Australians to repeatedly provide identity documents to different organisations reduces the threat exposure across Australia’s digital economy,” they said in their submission.