Email address and mobile phone number should not be mandatory

Emails and mobile phones are convenient communication options we all became accustomed to, but until there are email and mobile phone services that are subject to strict privacy laws, are free, accessible, secure, and don't harvest personal data from their users, every request to supply an email address or a mobile phone number, is yet another step towards erosion of safety and privacy of Australians. Nobody is legally required to have an email or mobile phone, so there always should be an option to say I don't have (or won't give) either of them.

An option not to give a phone number or an email address adds an extra security layer: if someone receives a message or a phone call from scammers claiming to be from the Department of Human Services, Taxation Office, Medicare, Centrelink, Child Support, myGov, Bureau of Statistics or any other government agency, and the person knows they have never given this phone number or email address to this agency, they will immediately know it is a scam and will not become a victim of it. Unfortunately, as things stand, both government agencies and private enterprises insist on collecting personal contact details, even when not necessary, and then shun the consequences by simply posting scam warning on their websites: Department of Human Services scam page, ATO scam alerts, ABS “beware of scammers” page, and so on...

If phone numbers or email addresses are absolutely necessary for communications between the public and the government or businesses, the following two things must happen first, at the very least:

Free, Reliable, Secure, 100% Australian Email Service

You have to be a rare and lucky exception if at any point in recent years you haven't been nudged by some organization to go online and switch to electronic bills/statements/notices/etc. MyGov, ATO, AusPost, Medicare, Centrelink, banks, local councils, insurers, electricity suppliers, phone companies, utility services — all want you to create online accounts or switch to eStatements, eBills and eAppointments. And while reducing paper mail may look like an eco-friendly idea, there is a tricky step in this process: to create an account or do anything online with any of these institutions you must have an email address.

The problem is that there is no free, secure, reliable, 100% Australia-hosted and Australian-operated email service that respects user privacy and is not tied to any Internet provider. This means Australians are essentially forced by Australian companies and Australian government to use foreign services like Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail or Yahoo, and thus hand their private communications over to foreign entities that have no responsibilities under Australian law and can use the harvested data for their commercial benefit in any way their laws permit. Considering that documents like utility bills or bank statements can be used to confirm (or forge) identity of any Australian, the risks are very serious.

Besides safety implications, there are serious privacy concerns. Foreign services don't care about Australian privacy laws and instead comply with mass surveillance directives of their governments. In addition to foreign intelligence agencies, privacy can be violated by the email service providers themselves. For example, Gmail reads every message the user sends or receives, and extracts information about the person's contacts, family, work, bills, travels, hotel bookings, ticket purchases, car rentals, online shopping transactions, and any other movements. Email providers analyse every email allegedly purely to create a “better user experience”: to remind about appointments and reservations, to suggest autoreplies, to predict the importance of each email, but can anyone believe they would do anything for the user convenience only and for no profit to themselves at all? They greatly benefit from the fact that every institution now pushes for online communications: emails now contain highly sensitive information such as doctor appointments, hospital forms, bank statements, passport and visa applications, utility bills, and so on. From the contents of ordinary emails, the email provider will quickly harvest your name, date of birth, address, names of your relatives, friends and colleagues, your place of work, your salary, your health status, your bank accounts, where you go, where you stay, where you shop, what you buy, what you look like, when your children were born, what they look like, what school they go to... All that data is read, analysed, compiled and stored somewhere overseas. It is used for advertising and marketing trickery. It can also be shared, sold or hacked at any time.

Australia Should Ditch ID Checks for Prepaid Mobiles

Another growing issue is with various government departments and private enterprises demanding that the person gives them a mobile number. Most people regularly have to fill various forms where mobile number is marked as mandatory. In addition to extra costs imposed on the person by this demand (mobile phones and services are not free), this has significant privacy ramifications: unlike in New Zealand or UK, it is impossible to legally obtain an Australian mobile phone number without a photo ID. This means that those government departments and businesses are essentially forcing each person to hand over their identity and money to a Telco, and to allow them to track the person's private life, communications, contacts and daily movements. This also means the number cannot be changed quickly, frequently and securely if/when the person needs to protect themselves from spammers or scammers.