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Overcoming barriers Australia’s Digital ID Bill imposes on proof of Aboriginality

Overcoming barriers Australia’s Digital ID Bill imposes on proof of Aboriginality

It’s been broadly discussed that Australia’s pending Digital ID Bill will have implications for how finance, business, and travel are carried out. What has been less discussed is what implications it will have on racially marginalized groups, namely the Aboriginal population.

Federal law only started applying to Aboriginal Australians in 1967 once they began being counted in Australia’s population. The demographic group remains unmentioned in the nation’s constitution. A 2023 referendum would have recognized Aboriginals in the constitution and given them more of a voice in parliament through an advisory group. Most indigenous voters were in favor, but over 60 percent of all voters said no.

Now, the measured Aboriginal population is actively growing, due to higher birth rates, migration and more individuals self-identifying as Aboriginal. The population continues to face a number of challenges as a result of longstanding systematic racism.

“First Nations people live in two worlds, the Western world and indigenous world,” says Jason Urranndulla Davis, CEO of the First Nations digital ID wallet developer Hold Access. “The digital ID transformation in the Western world lacks indigenous value and cultural adoption.”

A lack of trust and cultural relevance in the Australian government systems disconnects communities. Over half of the Aboriginal population is unemployed, and 9 in 10 First Nations people do not use emails, according to WUNA, a digital identity project led by Hold Access in partnership with ConnectID from Australian Payments Plus (AP+).

“Due to poor administration issues and limitations in funding available to Indigenous corporations’ identity is poorly managed and highly unregulated,” explains Urranndulla Davis.

Moreover, without being able to prove Aboriginality, indigenous people may be shut out of Native Title negotiations, regional business grants, and welfare benefits, to name a few effects.

The rising WUNA Digital (Diji) ID is designed to be a secure, culturally relevant system that gives Aboriginals the ability to demonstrate their proof of heritage, skills for employment, voting rights, and Native Title ownership. Proponents hope it will bridge financial gaps and facilitate digital inclusion.

WUNA is the first systematized approach to proving Aboriginality. It uses multi-factor authentication and requires a user’s consent before sharing identity information. It is also accepted as a legal document in all regions of Australia, says Urranndulla Davis.

According to the most recent draft of Australia’s Digital ID Bill, upcoming national IDs will restrict the collection of racial markers, further underscoring the demand for an independent, indigenous-led digital ID system.

“The Bill fails to define the racial and ethnic origin verifications as a vital asset in identity matching and verification,” says Urranndulla Davis. “Barriers exist when governments continue to remove choice, particularly without the inclusion of identity attributes such as Aboriginality, family lines and cultural heritage,” he continues.

He notes that while “WUNA offers an Indigenous solution to an Indigenous problem, without the presence of an Indigenous ID solution … the government Bill fails fundamental self-determination.”

A number of other organizations have voiced their perspectives on the bill’s restriction of collecting racial data from Australia’s digital IDs in submissions to parliament, which will have unique implications for this demographic even as WUNA makes progress.

Differing perspectives on whether to collect racial attributes

Section 41, subsection 1 of the Digital ID Bill states that entities are not permitted to collect “information or an opinion about an individual’s racial or ethnic origin,” political association, religious beliefs, while subsection 3 permits the collection of attributes where such information can be inferred from it.

While this rule is well-meaning, some entities voice how such restrictions can actually harm marginalized groups.

In its submission, AP+ voices concern against subsection one, saying that “the legislation should not prohibit the ability to collect, use or disclose the attributes of an individual who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Like all other aspects of the digital identity system, that choice should also remain with the individual, via consent.”

The legislation should allow for individuals “be able to reflect their cultural identity in certain digital representations,” especially for practical use cases for proving Aboriginal identity.

It also is against subsection 3, noting that the Office of Australian Information Commissioner has already stated that “images of individuals may… contain sensitive information if… the individual’s racial or ethnic origin or religious beliefs is apparent.” Such information could be considered information about an individual’s ethnicity, or would at least serve the same purpose.

In its submission, Digital Rights Watch differs from AP+, stating that it “welcome[s] the prohibition upon intentional collection of certain attributes including racial or ethnic origin, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation” but voices similar concerns with the use of inferences, noting that “it is possible to infer this information from other, seemingly benign data points.”

It does say that an essential feature of the digital system is that it works for “work for First Nations people and non-Eurocentric models of a person’s identity.”

Commonwealth Bank’s submission expresses concern that prohibiting the collection of racial identifiers altogether may mean that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent records “can no longer be used” for identification, “making it harder for indigenous citizens to establish a digital identity and entrenching existing gaps in digital access to government services.”

BixeLab notes that inability to collect racial attributes can interfere with its testing to determine if biometric systems include racial bias.

New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) criticizes the bill for its lack of a provision preventing discriminatory uses for the IDs. It further notes that the bill is “inconsistent with the aims of the UN Declaration of Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples” that they “are free and equal to all other peoples … and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination … particularly that based on their indigenous origin or identity.”

Australia also remains the only liberal democracy without a Bill of Rights, leaving open the possibility that basic freedoms may be stripped away by federal, state, and territory parliaments.

“In Europe, many countries have established digital identity systems, however these systems are built on robust rights-based frameworks that we do not currently enjoy in Australia,” continues NSWCCL.

Changes may yet be made to section 41, and the Bill in general. In the meantime, Hold Access and ConnectID will be working to deliver digital identity to Australia’s First Nations people via WUNA.

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