Need to know
- Australians don't presently have a universally accepted form of digital identification
- The proposed "Digital ID" will function like a more powerful MyGovID
- The personal data you supply to get your Digital ID will be encrypted, making it difficult for any third parties – including the digital identity provider – to view or share it
Most adult Australians already have one form of digital identification. That's the myGovID they use to interact with the ATO, Centrelink and Medicare. They may even have other forms of digital identification, such as one of the digital driver's licences that have proved popular with NSW motorists.
Or just possibly an Australia Post "Digital iD", which lets you confirm you are who you say you are when dealing with organisations ranging from Airtasker to the Australian Electoral Commission. But what Australians don't presently have is a universally accepted form of digital identification.
There are two significant issues with identification verification in Australia.
Firstly, there's no "general purpose" form of digital identification. For instance, you can't use your myGovID when you're trying to verify your identity with a bank, utility company or internet service provider.
The second problem, which arises from the first, is that private businesses often require Australians to hand over a treasure trove of sensitive personal data to verify their identity.
There are probably scans of your passport, driver's licence, birth certificate and utility bills currently stored in many databases. And even multinational corporations with the resources and incentive to invest in cutting-edge cybersecurity won't necessarily be able to stop cyber criminals from accessing those scans.
Australia's proposed "Digital ID" will function like a more powerful myGovID. In fact, many Australians will presumably use an (enhanced) myGovID as their Digital ID. Strictly speaking, the federal government is not so much minting a new form of digital identification out of thin air as trying to make the existing digital identification system more efficient. Chiefly by corralling existing digital identities into a single, user-friendly process.
There will likely be a range of Digital ID providers, including some businesses. Companies such as Mastercard are already involved in the "Trusted Digital Identity Framework" (TDIF), the federal government's accreditation framework for digital ID services, and may become accredited participants in the Australian government's Digital ID system.
You'll still have to go through the usual, time-consuming process of verifying your identity when applying for a Digital ID. But once you have it, identity verification should become much less convoluted.
It's an easy way of verifying who you are online against existing government-held identity documents without having to hand over any physical informationMinister for Finance Katy Gallagher
Instead of needing to locate then scan or photograph 100 points of identification, you'll simply receive a one-time PIN via your Digital ID app, which you'll supply to businesses, government agencies and other organisations that need to confirm your identity (much like how you type in a one-time PIN during a two-factor authentication log-in process).
Malicious actors could breach the cyber defences of one or more Digital ID providers, but it's widely believed Digital ID will reduce risks for individuals and organisations. After all, the status quo allows cyber criminals to target the often unencrypted personal data of Australians that many organisations already possess.
The personal data you supply to get your Digital ID will be encrypted, making it difficult for any third parties – including the digital identity provider – to view or share it. That should reduce the incidence of online scams that cost Australians billions of dollars annually.
Also, given a range of public and private sector organisations will supply Digital IDs, there won't be a central database cyber criminals can target.
The Minister for Finance, Katy Gallagher, who is overseeing the introduction of Digital ID, has said, "It's like the online version of showing someone your passport or your driver's licence to prove who you are, but it's not giving them your licence to hold on to, or to scan and store on an unknown server or photocopy.
"Digital ID is not a card, it's not a unique number, nor a new form of ID. It's just an easy way of verifying who you are online against existing government-held identity documents without having to hand over any physical information."
You can find out more at system which will be accessible across digitalidentity.gov.au, but the current schedule is as follows.
Both Coalition and Labor federal governments consult extensively on Digital ID. CHOICE made a submission to the Finance Department in late 2023 arguing Australians would "benefit from a trusted, accessible and robust national Digital ID system" and that such a system should result in consumers being "better protected from threats of scams, identity theft, and data misuse". However, we also emphasised the need to ensure the proposed Digital ID system is well-designed, well-implemented and well-regulated.
All going to plan, the Digital ID will be introduced to federal parliament. As the Finance Department's website explains, "The legislation when passed will move Digital ID to a nationally regulated system which will be accessible across both the public and private sectors and will include strong privacy provisions. It will establish the ACCC as the initial regulator."
If the legislation passes through federal parliament, it's hoped Digital ID can be rolled out quickly. The plan is to phase in Digital ID in the following manner:
- phase one will legislate for Digital ID, establish a regulator, and expand use of Digital ID across government and the private sector
- phase two will allow state and territory Digital IDs to be used to access Commonwealth services
- phase three sees myGovID used in the private sector – such as opening a new bank account, or verifying a telco contract or real estate lease
- phase four will allow accredited privately provided Digital IDs to be used when accessing some government services.
"General purpose" forms of digital identification have been introduced in nations such as Singapore, seemingly with little or no political opposition. But Australians have a history of distrusting their federal governments.
In the pre-internet age, the Hawke Labor government abandoned plans to introduce a national identification card – the Australia Card – in the face of opposition from other political parties and a sizeable proportion of the electorate. Likewise, around 10% of Australians opted out of My Health Record, a digital health record platform, in 2019.
Digital ID was an initiative of the Morrison Coalition government but one embraced by the Albanese Labor government. Both businesses and consumer advocacy groups broadly support Digital ID.
Sceptics argue that political conditions can change and future governments may not behave as ethically as their predecessors
There doesn't appear to be much concern about either side of politics using the Digital ID for nefarious purposes in the short term, even among opponents of Digital ID. But sceptics argue that political conditions can change and future governments may not behave as ethically as their predecessors.
A United Australia Party YouTube ad that doesn't explicitly mention Digital ID but does warn of the possibility of Australia introducing a social credit scheme currently has more than 2.6 million views. The United Australia Party presently holds one Senate seat.
One Nation, which is also opposed to Digital ID, holds two. One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts has warned, "The Digital Identity sets out to link all government data related to a person. Future iterations of the Digital Identity propose to pair this data against private sector information, such as purchasing records, to create a rich digital view of a citizen.
"While Australia lacks the corresponding technological infrastructure to utilise a Digital Identity to its sinister potential (such as China's spying street lights and billboards), this Bill – whether intentional or accidental – acts as the foundation for a China-style Social Credit System."
Australians don't presently have a universally accepted form of digital identification. The proposed Digital ID would function like a more powerful MyGovID.
Victor Dominello was formerly NSW's Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government. Dominello is a Liberal but has been assisting two federal Labor ministers – Finance Minister Katy Gallagher and Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten – as they seek to get the Digital ID Bill through federal parliament then rolled out, ideally during the second half of 2024.
Rafi Alam is a senior policy adviser on CHOICE's consumer data team and has previously worked for organisations such as GetUp!.
Both Alam and Dominello are pro-Digital ID. But Alam insists Digital ID must have the appropriate safeguards to mitigate the risks of "exclusion and discrimination, data monetisation, and catastrophic data breaches".
Dominello agrees safeguards must be put in place but believes it's high time for Australia to embrace Digital ID. "Digital ID will be a digital identity architecture that gives individuals far more control of their personal information than they currently have," he says. "And let's not forget Australians are currently being scammed out of billions online every year."
The devil is always in the detail ... How will things work with for-profit businesses providing Digital IDs? Will they be able to charge?CHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Rafi Alam
Alam expects some political opposition to emerge but believes the Digital ID Bill will likely pass and that Digital IDs will be rolled out shortly after that.
"There's broad agreement across the political spectrum that Digital ID will be far superior to the current arrangements," he notes. "But the devil is always in the detail. There are still sticking points that need to be resolved. For instance, CHOICE believes that Australians should be able to get a Digital ID at no cost.
"They can do that if they use a beefed-up version of their myGovID as their Digital ID. But how will things work with for-profit businesses providing Digital IDs? Will they be able to charge? These are the types of issues that will need to be settled soon."
If Digital ID is introduced, it will inevitably generate other political debates. For instance, there are already calls for Digital ID to be used for age verification purposes on certain websites. Australia's Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, has indicated she's open to using Digital ID to prevent "young people from having unfettered access to pornography".
What if you throw a Digital ID party and nobody comes?
There are no plans to compel Australians to use Digital IDs. One of the built-in safeguards of the system is that Australians should continue to be able to confirm their identity without recourse to a Digital ID. So, both Dominello and Alam worry that the real challenge Digital ID could face is widespread ignorance or indifference rather than fierce resistance.
Dominello is characteristically bullish. After pointing out the popularity of other forms of digital identification – around three-quarters of NSW drivers now possess the digital driver's licence he introduced in 2019 – Dominello says, "Look at how commuters have embraced smart cards. Does anyone miss having to buy bus or train tickets? Digital ID is opt-in. But given how much friction it eliminates, I assume most people will opt in."
Alam worries some Australians may struggle to opt in. "Consumer advocates are concerned there's so little public awareness around Digital ID and would welcome a public education campaign," he says.
Even small differences in how digital ID is rolled out seem to result in significant differences in adoptionCHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Rafi Alam
"In the coming months, more media and public attention will be paid to Digital ID. But even then, certain demographics, such as the elderly or those living in remote communities, might face challenges getting a Digital ID."
Alam also points out that adoption rates can and do vary between nations. "Digital IDs have been around for years in Europe. The Belgians have taken to digital ID, the French not so much. The societies aren't that different, but even small differences in how digital ID is rolled out seem to result in significant differences in adoption."
Dominello accepts some demographics are likely to be late adopters of Digital ID but is comfortable with a "build it and they will come" approach.
"My experience in state politics was that if you deliver a good product that protects people's privacy and security, it will be embraced," he says. "It won't have universal appeal and there will likely be some teething issues. But I'm confident most Australians will choose the option that makes connecting the internet and power easier when moving to a new home."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.