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Posted
10 September 2005

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Verisimilitude

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Spam For Life

As conservative politicians go, there are certainly those more obnoxious than Malcolm Turnbull. Although I can't quite decide whether he helped or hindered us becoming a republic back in the heady days of the referendum, but it seems his heart was in the right place on that issue and this buys him a certain amount of credibility in my book.

So recently we had his (AFAICT) mostly redundant tax reform ideas, and now a frankly bizarre suggestion to give every Australian an email address.

What problem is he trying to solve? Well, he states it pretty clearly:

Every year the Australian government spends hundreds of millions of dollars sending paper communications to Australians. Many of them are lost, many of them are mislaid and many of them, perhaps most of them, are never read.

[...]

The government no doubt finds it frustrating that it cannot more effectively use email to communicate with Australians. Those of us who try to manage our own email databases can empathise: Australians change their email address even more frequently than they change their physical, street address. (emphasis added)

Got that? The government send lots of snail mail around the place because it doesn't have email addresses for everyone. And the reason it doesn't have everyone's email address is because the pesky punters keep changing theirs. Give everyone a permanent email address, and — bam! — millions of dollars saved.

Malcolm knows the problem because of his experience managing his own email database. Could the problem be that it's costing him too much to spam his own electorate? Hmm, well even if that's the case, there does seem to be a case to be made that email is under-utilised as a tool of government communication. But why?

I have lots of email addresses. I don't recall ever giving any of them to a government organisation. So maybe the government isn't equipped to record the addresses? Or maybe it just doesn't ask? Maybe the unreliability or insecurity of email has something to do with it? Maybe we just don't trust them not to spam us? And if government agencies are just itching to use email, how come they never respond to email themselves? Surely these are all legitimate reasons why governmental emails are as rare as chook's chompers.

As for the assertion that people change their email address more often then they change their underwear. It may be true. But you certainly have to address (err) the other issues of reliability and security in order to use email in an official capacity. These are not merely technical issues any more than the stated problem is. As for privacy:

Privacy issues would arise, of course, but they arise with all communications and with all systems of storing data, and can be dealt with in the same way.

Oohhh-kay. We'll just plug in the privacy generator. If you had been "involved in the internet industry for over a decade" like Malcolm you would know that it really is that easy.

You can get permanent — or some approximation thereof given the short history of the internet — email addresses already. There are private services like pobox.com, as well as those provided by professional associations like the IEEE, and others. So what's the difference between these services and Turnbull's proposal? Look a bit closer and you realise that he's not just attempting to give everyone a permanent email address:

The address might be something like: firstname.surname.dateofbirth@australia.org.au.

There are some obvious problems with this suggestion — any time you give out your email address you are automatically giving out your date of birth as well — but let's just crank up the privacy generator an extra notch and ignore that for now.

More significantly, having an email address of this form would not require most existing government agencies to be informed of it. The agencies can simply predict a person's email address, based on the information they already have. Think about that.

If I give you my email address, it constitutes an explicit consent for you to contact me by email. Where is the consent if you can guess the email address?

Of course if the government agencies can guess your email addresses, it is likely that others will too. On day one, every company you've ever done business with would be granted your current, valid, email address. This is unprecedented, at least in comparison to other forms of communication. The insurance company I last used 5 years ago doesn't (in theory anyway) know my current postal address, and so can't spam me. With a permanent, predictable email address, this all changes.

Is the privacy generator up to speed yet? Well maybe, because apparently we're going to whitelist senders to @australia addresses:

On the one hand, it would be important that this electronic pigeonhole be kept spam free, and the best way to do that would be to limit the ability to send documents to it to official and approved senders, such as employers and financial institutions. On the other hand, there is no technical reason why a general send and receive facility could not be made available, but the government may want to charge an annual fee for that functionality.

Look, it's going to make money! (For the government, presumably) Rather uncharacteristically for a conservative, Turnbull seems to be proposing that the government provide a service which could easily be provided — and has been provided — by the private sector. All up to the point at which email addresses become predictable, that is. Which makes me think this is the real motivation here. Either that or he's relying on a nuclear-powered privacy generator.

Thanks Malcolm, but in future please just stick to getting the republic back on the political agenda.

3 Comments

Posted by
Alan Green
2005-09-10 10:43:36 -0500
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How about "your.name-australia.card.id@australia.org.au"?


Posted by
Alan Green
2005-09-10 10:43:36 -0500
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On the other hand, it's nice to see a politician that knows the Internet exists and isn't scaremongering over it :)


Posted by
alastair
2005-09-10 10:43:36 -0500
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