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Proposals for identity (ID) cards have provoked public outrage and political division in several countries. In this paper Simon Davies analyses the key elements of public opposition to ID Card schemes, and profiles the massive 1987 Australian campaign against a national ID card.

Following the announcement of an official identity card scheme, there is inevitably a public debate Such debate often occurs as a three stage process:

During the first stage of the debate, a popular view is usually expressed that identification, per se, is not an issue related to individual rights. When an identity card is proposed, the public discussion is initially focused on the possession and use of the card itself. At this level of debate, the perceived benefits of ID dominate discussion. People often cannot see past the idea of a card being used strictly for purposes of verification of identity (banks, public transport, travel etc). Invariably, at this early stage of awareness, support for ID cards is high. The device is perceived as an instrument to streamline dealings with authority.

The second stage of public debate is marked by a growing awareness of the hidden threats of an identity card: function creep, the potential for abuse by authorities, the problems arising from losing your card. Technical and organizational questions often arise at this level of discussion. As for the question of abuse by authorities (i.e. routine ID checks by police) a common response is still "I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to fear".

The final level of discussion involves more complex questions about rights and responsibilities. At this stage, the significance of the computer back-up and the numbering system come into the picture.

Most public opposition to administration strategies such as numbering systems, Identity cards or the census are structured around an organized campaign of negative imagery (Big Brother) and a more systematic process of public education. In the Netherlands and German anti-census movements, and in the campaign against the Australia Card, hostile imagery sat comfortably alongside a strong intellectual foundation of opposition.

To the organizers of a campaign, the imagery is important. No government assurances can counteract hysteria. The intangible arguments against national ID cards often include:

A fear that the card will be used against the individual
A fear that the card will increase the power of authorities
A feeling that the card is in some way a hostile symbol
A concern that a national ID card is the mechanism foretold in Revelations (the Mark of the Beast).
A fear that people will be reduced to numbers - a dehumanising effect.
A rejection of the card on the principle of individual rights
A sense that the government is passing the buck for bad management to the citizen
The tangible concerns that tend to create a more powerful long term campaign focus are:

Any card system needs rules. How many laws must be passed to force the citizenry to use and respect the card?
A card or numbering system may lead to a situation where government policy becomes "technology driven" and will occur increasingly through the will of bureaucrats, rather than through law or public process
Practical and administrative problems that will arise from lost, stolen or damaged cards (estimated at up to several hundred thousand per year)
Will the system create enough savings to justify its construction? If the system fails, can it be disassembled?
To what extent will the system entrench fraud and criminality? What new opportunities for criminality will the system create?
What are the broader questions of social change that relate to this proposal ? How will it affect my children?
Concerns over the potential abuse of ID cards by authorities are supported by the experience of countries which have such cards. Complaints of harassment, discrimination and denial of service are, in some countries, quite common.

The issue of privacy, which is central to concern about ID cards, tends to embrace all political philosophies. Concern over identity cards is as strong on the right as it is on the left. Libertarians and Conservatives believing that a card will increase the power of government, tend to dislike the notion. The left is often split on the issue, but contains a significant number who fear card systems on the basis of human rights.

It is, of course, true that a large number of people will support an ID card in the belief that it will solve many problems of fraud and criminality. Whether a Parliament accepts the notion is another matter. In Australia and New Zealand, MPs have crossed the floor and resigned from their party over this issue. And even when only a minority of the public opposes the card, they do so with vehemence.

It cannot be taken for granted that the public will automatically support the ID card concept. The Australian public took almost two years to protest against the card proposal. Within two months of the New Zealand announcement, hundreds of people were protesting in public. The reaction cannot be predicted.

The United States has always viewed the introduction of ID cards as a fundamental attack on the relationship between authorities and the citizen, and therefore, a proposal that is politically unsustainable.

The government of Ireland recently abandoned plans to establish a national numbering system and ID card.1 The Data Protection Commissioner for Ireland, Donal Linehan, objected vehemently to the proposal. While acknowledging the importance of controlling fraud, the Commissioner observed that the proposal posed "very serious privacy implications for everybody".2


  • 1. Announced in the 1989 - 1993 Programme For Government document
  • 2.  Commissioner's Annual Report, 1991, p.2, 42