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Sunday, 03 July 2011 15:02

Identity, theft and six degrees of separation


Attorney-General Robert McClelland has announced the results of a survey, under the headline: "New research shows identity theft affects one in six people," but that's something of an exaggeration depending exactly on what you take 'effects' to mean.

More precisely, McClelland announce the results of a survey of 1200 Australians claiming it shows that "nearly one in six Australians have been a victim or known somebody who has been a victim of identity theft or misuse in the past six months."

If you subscribe to the philosophy of John Donne (1572-1631) - "No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main / '¦ any man's death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind. / And therefore never send to know for whom / the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." - Then you might well concur.

But what does that say about the number of people who have directly suffered identity theft? Again if you believe in the idea of six degrees of separation - that everyone is on average approximately six steps away from any other person on Earth - then that one in six figure would be very easily realised.

A much more meaningful figure would have been the number of people who have had their identity stolen or suffered directly as a result of identity theft, but that would likely be nowhere near as scary as "one in six" figure that McClelland used to support new legislation just introduced into Parliament "to strengthen cyber security laws and enhance Australia's ability to combat international cyber crime." The legislation is being introduced to bring Australia into line with the requirements of the European Cybercrime Convention as part of Australia's bid for membership.

And as for "releasing the research," not exactly. McClelland tells us that "The independent online study was conducted by Di Marzio Research and surveyed 1200 people from across Australia," and that "The survey also revealed that the majority of identity theft or misuse occurred over the Internet (58 percent), or through the loss of a credit or debit card (30 percent). Stolen identify information was primarily used to purchase goods or services (55 percent) or to obtain finance, credit or a loan (26 percent)," but has given no other details.

More sinister perhaps - for the paranoid at least - was McClelland's statement that the survey of 1,200 people "will be used to help develop a new National Identity Security Strategy." That's very laudable, as long as it does not turn into a National Identity Strategy, bringing back memories of the dreaded and long dead "Australia Card" - a highly unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful initiative of the last Labor Government of Bob Hawke in the late 1980s.


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As the Wikipedia entry on the Australia Card notes (albeit without citations) "The Australia Card proposal resurfaces every so often. Most recently, figures within the Liberal Party of Australia - which opposed the card in the 1980s - have voiced support for a national identity card. The Australia Card, say some, would help the government to combat terrorism and address flaws in the immigration system."

Australia already has a National Identity Strategy that the Labor Government inherited when it came to power in 2007. As the AG's web site explains. "The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) considered identity security at its special meeting on Counter-Terrorism on 27 September 2005. COAG agreed to the development and implementation of a national identity security strategy, underpinned by an inter-governmental agreement (IGA), the development and implementation of a national document verification service to combat the misuse of false and stolen identities, and to investigate the means by which reliable, consistent and nationally inter-operable biometric security measures could be adopted by all jurisdictions'¦The prime minister, premiers and chief ministers signed the IGA at the COAG meeting on 13 April 2007."

Under this strategy a "National Document Verification Service was developed. It is billed as "a secure, electronic, on-line system that can be used to check, in real time, whether a particular proof-of-identity document that has been presented by a person applying for a high value benefit or service is authentic, accurate and up-to-date."

According to the AG's web site "Following a successful trial in 2006, the DVS is being progressively implemented, with more agencies planning to commence using the DVS during 2009/10. Currently, passports, visas and drivers licences are among the proof-of-identity documents that can be verified using the DVS."

Methinks McClelland needs to explain what further protection of our identities his government has in mind rather than trying to scare us all with statistics.


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