Biometric bill is ‘manifest danger’

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government needs to abandon its “sloppy and dangerous” facial recognition scheme that would impact the freedoms of all Australians, according to the Human Rights Legal Centre.

The Coalition announced plans in late 2017 to incorporate state and territory government drivers’ licence photos in a large facial recognition database to be used by a range of agencies, departments and law enforcement.

The Identity-Matching Services Bill and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching services) Bill, which pave the way for a $20 million National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, were first introduced to Parliament early last year, but lapsed upon the May election.

The identity-matching bill is “intended to facilitate the secure, automated and accountable exchange of identity information between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments”.

The government is still committed to the controversial regime and re-introduced the legislation to the House of Representatives in July.

“The imperative for this legislation is just as strong as it was when the bill was first introduced into the previous Parliament in February 2018,” immigration minister David Coleman said in Parliament.

This led to a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the new powers to be reopened, and a number of new submissions have been made public.

A series of civil and digital rights groups have reiterated their staunch opposition to the scheme, calling on the government to scrap it entirely, or at least introduce a number of stronger safeguards and restrictions on the use of the biometrics database and facial recognition technology.

The new powers are “dangerously over-broad, lack safeguards and could dramatically alter the freedom of ordinary people going about their daily lives”, Human Rights Law Centre legal director Emily Howie said.

“The facial recognition scheme effectively hands control of powerful new forms of surveillance to the Home Affairs department with virtual carte blanche to collect and use some of the most sensitive personal data,” Ms Howie said.

“The laws are a recipe for disaster, they put at risk everyone’s privacy and contain no meaningful safeguards.”

“This law is sloppy, it’s dangerous and it has no place in a democracy. Frankly, these proposed laws are something you’d expect in an authoritarian state, they do not belong in a liberal democracy,” she said.

If the legislation passes as is, the new biometrics scheme would impact all Australians’ right to privacy, freedom of movement, the right to non-discrimination and the right to a fair trial, the Australian Human Rights Commission said.

“The Committee continues to hold serious concerns that the bill would impinge on a number of human rights in ways no demonstrated to be necessary and proportionate to achieving its objectives,” the Australian Human Rights Commission said in its submission.

“Since the Commission’s submission on the 2018 bills, research continues to lend weight to the Commission’s concerns about the use of this technology. The research casts serious and fundamental doubts about the reliability of biometric facial recognition technology in general.

“Australia must be vigilant to the threats that the use of this technology can pose to fundamental human rights.”

The government bills do not include nearly enough protections and restrictions on the use of the biometrics database, Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre head Fergus Hanson said in a submission.

“In an era of heightened strategic competition, where authoritarian states are making increased use of surveillance technologies to suppress their own people and commit mass human rights abuses, Australia should take a pointedly different approach to its use of surveillance technologies,” Mr Hanson said.

“In the current very low domestic threat environment and absent a credible use case, it is worth considering whether the FIS is necessary given the deleterious effect it will have on all Australians’ liberties and the very marginal benefits.”

Dr Marcus Smith, a senior lecturer at the Charles Sturt University’s Centre for Law and Justice, said the federal government should follow in the footsteps of the UK government and adopt a Biometrics Commissioner model to oversee the scheme if it goes ahead.

“In overseas jurisdictions, independent statutory commissioners have been appointed and demonstrated capacity to respond to concerns relating to consent, retention and the use of biometric information,” Dr Smith said.

“The Biometrics Commissioner model that has been adopted in the UK, with additional powers in relation to biometric facial images, would provide appropriate independent oversight of the developments proposed by these bills, and more broadly.

“It would be an important step towards ensuring that there is a reasonable and proportionate balance between the need to use available new technology to protect the community from harm, and maintain appropriate standards regarding individual rights.”

Submissions to the PJCIS inquiry closed last week, with a public hearing to be held in Canberra next month.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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