‘Far from perfect’ face matching laws pass Parliament

Companies will be able to use face matching systems operated by the federal government to verify a person’s identity after controversial legislation passed Parliament with almost 40 privacy-focused amendments.

The changes, which seek to address privacy gaps identified in a committee report last month, including around consent, secured the bill’s passage for the government, with the Coalition and the Greens both backing the legislation.

But the government stopped short of amendments that would have brought the privacy protections into line with the Digital ID Bill, despite pleas from legal and digital rights groups to do so.

Image: Shutterstock.com/Fractal Pictures

The Identity Verification Services (IVS) Bill passed the Senate on Wednesday night after just 30 minutes of debate, following a government motion earlier in the day to limit the amount of time allocated to the discussion.

The move led one senator to accuse the government of trying to gag debate on the bill, while others reiterated criticisms from the consultation period earlier this year that the process has been rushed.

The bill, introduced to Parliament in September, allows the government to legally operate its document and face matching systems, including the Face Verification Service – which is necessary for an expansion of the digital identity scheme – and the Document Verification Service.

The DVS has been in operation since 2009 and has been open to the private sector since 2014, while the FVS has been used by Commonwealth agencies, including for myGovID, since the 2019-20 bushfires.

The bill also allows authorities to conduct one-to-many face matching, although this is limited to the purposes of protecting those with a legally assumed identities – addressing some of the concerns that led to the downfall of similar legislation in 2019.

In response to concerns raised by a Senate committee last month, the government introduced 38 amendments on Wednesday, several of which introduce a requirement for public and private sector entities to obtain express consent from citizens before the use of the matching services.

Liberal senator Michaelia Cash said the “very significant concessions” contained in the government’s amendments meant that the Opposition was now in a position where it could support the legislation.

“The Attorney-General has agreed to implement, as senator [Paul] Scarr had set out in his dissenting report, every one of the 11 substantive recommendations in the committee report. The Attorney-General has also agreed to further changes that the coalition have requested,” she said.

Greens senator David Shoebridge, who had led a push for an even “higher standard” of privacy protections ahead of the debate, said the party would reluctantly support the bill, which he described as “passable” following the amendments from the government.

“It’s far from perfect but probably, on balance, it’s passable. But that’s not what the… engaged stakeholders in the privacy space want. What they want is consistency in privacy laws,” he said during the short debate on Wednesday night.

Mr Shoebridge had attempted to defer consideration of the bill until early next year, so that it could be debated alongside the separate but related Digital ID Bill, but this amendment was ultimately defeated.

The Greens senator also moved an amendment – that was also turned down by the Senate – to “expressly prohibit this information being captured or disseminated through the identity verification services process”.

“We understand that the government won’t support them, because they say that there’s a policy in place, that they don’t collect this stuff about us now, and that this bill isn’t really about limiting what information we can use; it’s just about making it happen,” he said.

“That bells the cat for us. That raises concerns for us. There should be clear legal constraints preventing critical information, which we’ve outlined in our amendments, ever being collected under this system, held by the government and distributed under this system.”

Mr Shoebridge reiterated concerns also raised by the Law Council of Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre that the bill has been “rushed through by the government, for reasons that they have still not come clean about”.

“The conclusion that pretty much every stakeholder has drawn is that the current identity verification services procedure is unlawful, and, in the absence of any statutory underpinning, is open to legal challenge,” he said.

“Unless that is resolved, they face, potentially, significant civil damages claims – potentially aggravated by the fact that they continue to operate a service knowing full well that it is unlawful, and in breach of, amongst other matters, the privacy laws.”

Nationals senator Matt Canavan described the bill as a “massive expansion of a surveillance state without introducing related reforms to the Privacy Act”, before going on to accused the government of gaging debate.

“Nothing demonstrates more why we should oppose this bill tonight than that the government has allotted the sum total of 30 minutes for debate. The government is trying to gag any opposition to this bill because it cannot defend why it needs to collect so much data on [citizens],” he said.

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