An A$800 million JobMaker digital business plan was released this week to support economic recovery from COVID-19. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the package is:
aimed at leveraging this digital transformation of Australian businesses to drive productivity and income growth and create jobs.
The plan includes a controversial digital identity system which the government says will facilitate engagement “with government services and, in the future, with the private sector”.
The big question is how prepared the government is to take on the liability associated with such a scheme – and how it fits in with similar schemes already announced by other government departments, such as the Australian Tax Office.
Read more: Our cybersecurity is not only under attack from foreign states. There are gaps in the government’s approach
You can read the press release here, but some of the measures include:
$256.6 million to develop a “digital identity system”, for example, to enable access to government services with facial recognition
$419.9 million to the “Business Records Modernization” program that would help businesses move online by allowing electronically signed documents and virtual shareholder voting
$29.2 million to accelerate the deployment of 5G
$22.2 million to expand a digital small business advisory service (however, the goal is to help 10,000 small businesses, and there are 2 million in Australia).
$3.6 million to mandate the adoption of e-invoicing for all federal government agencies
$2.5 million to connect workers and small and medium enterprises to digital skills training.
The plan follows recent NBN upgrade announcements of $4.5 billion.
Read more: Health, minerals, energy, food: how adopting new technologies could boost Australia’s economic recovery
Facial recognition, the Digital Identity program and you
Among the more controversial aspects of the plan is the $256.6 million proposal to expand the Commonwealth’s digital identity scheme, in a bid to supposedly simplify and reduce the costs of interacting with the government.
This would be done by creating a biometric identification system using facial recognition software. And the scheme will include identification for myGov and myGovID from the Australian Tax Office.
Numerous technical and political issues related to digital identity have already plagued the federal government this year.
For example, accounting firm Deloitte won a $9.5 million contract in March to develop a platform to eventually replace the current myGov portal.
According to reports, the value of this contract has increased to $28 million this month. A triple budget increase in six months suggests that the proposed funding of $256.6 million may not be enough.
Additionally, cybersecurity researchers have identified a relatively simple phishing method by which the ATO’s myGovID login system can be compromised. Researchers from the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne approached the ATO with a description of the problem.
Reports claim that the bureau has yet to patch the flaw.
We need common policies that complement each other
Last week, the ATO put out a tender for a digital “liveness solution.” This will use facial recognition software to prove that people accessing the ATO’s online services are physically present on their devices.
It is unclear whether the ATO intends to continue with its own identity solutions or whether it will participate in the government’s initiative to expand the Commonwealth’s digital identity scheme.
It’s strange to see a whole-of-government approach to digital identity announced three days after the ATO released its own aforementioned tender. The pace of Australia’s current digital transition requires joint policies that complement rather than oppose each other.
It is true that boosting business capacity in the digital economy will likely help small businesses adapt to the “new normal” brought on by COVID-19. But with that comes the challenge of understanding what this “new normal” will be like.
The new funds allocated under the JobMaker Digital Business Plan suggest that this challenge may not be taken up by the government, after all.
Read more: Frydenberg sets fiscal ambition dangerously low