Govt ‘steamrolling’ ahead with facial recognition plan

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Despite the necessary legislation not having been passed, the federal government is “streamrolling” ahead with its plan to launch a national facial recognition database and is already on the hunt for a private provider to build out the new services.

The Department of Home Affairs last week approached the market for a provider to deliver identity matching services, including to host the new National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution (NDLFRS).

This database, incorporating drivers licence photos from state and territory governments, has been launched but is not yet in operation because the necessary legislation has still not passed through Parliament.

The move to issue a tender for this week, before the legislation has been passed, has been criticised by privacy advocates as putting the cart before the horse, with calls for a moratorium on facial recognition technology until better privacy precautions are in place.

Momentum: The facial recognition steam-roller

Home Affairs issued a tender for the provision of managed services for the identity matching services, including to develop a hub for document verification services and face matching services, and to transition the National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution to a new provider.

All Australian states and territories signed an agreement with the Commonwealth in late 2017 to cooperate on the identity matching services, and send drivers licence photos to the database to be used for facial recognition matches.

The tools are intended to prevent the use of false or stolen identities and to help law enforcement agencies identify persons of interest.

The database will provide “secure, national, real-time and online services” through facial recognition matches.

The document verification service is for authorities and private sector organisations to check whether a particular identity document is accurate and authentic, while the face matching service includes one-to-one and one-to-many facial recognition matches for law enforcement.

Home Affairs is now on the hunt for a private provider to develop the two identification services and to host the existing facial recognition database, transitioning from the incumbent provider. The government is also looking to combine the document verification service and face matching service into the one hub.

The winning bidder will need security clearances to handle protected level data.

Despite looking to the market to develop these tools, the government still does not have a legislative basis to operate them, with the facial recognition database still not in use, nearly four years after legislation doing so was introduced.

The identity matching legislation was introduced to Parliament in 2018 but was soon rejected by the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), which called for the bill to be redrafted and for privacy protections to be improved.

The legislation has not been seen since, and while a number of state and territory governments have already provided drivers licence photos to the database, it is currently idle.

Deakin University senior lecturer and Australian Privacy Foundation surveillance committee chair Dr Monique Mann said it was presumptuous of the government to seek a provider for the services now, before the legislation has passed.

“It’s an absolute joke. The government is marching ahead by going to tender in absence of any legal framework supporting what they’re attempting to do,” Dr Mann told InnovationAus.

“They’re so committed to this and that it’s going to happen that they’re pressing ahead and going to tender without any supporting legislation being passed, and despite the recommendations of the PJCIS,” she said.

“Despite all of that, and despite the fact we haven’t seen any new draft of that bill, they’ve gone to tender to build the thing. This is putting the cart before the horse. It just shows how they can continue to operate these crazy, very invasive surveillance powers without any oversight and safeguards.”

Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania have already fed in drivers licences to the database, while the ACT government has said it will wait until the legislation passes to do so.

The new push comes despite growing calls from around the country for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition until there are adequate privacy and human rights protections in place, including from former Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow.

While the upcoming election may well result in a new government, Dr Mann said she has little hope that this will see the facial recognition database plan scrapped.

“Home Affairs is so invested in it – they’re steamrolling ahead in terms of building the thing. I’m quite sceptical that any change of government would have any kind of meaningful impact,” she said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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