Privacy trumps face recognition bill

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The federal government’s plans for a national facial recognition system are in disarray after a bipartisan committee ordered the legislation be completely redrafted due to privacy and transparency concerns.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) handed down its report on the Coalition’s Identity-Matching Services (IMS) Bill and Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill on Thursday morning.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the powerful committee sent the government’s legislation back to the drawing board to address a series of privacy and transparency issues.

The IMS bill, which paves the way for the “secure, automated and accountable exchange of identity information between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments”, was the main focus of the inquiry.

The legislation, which was first introduced to Parliament more than 18 months ago, aimed to create a national biometrics database with data provided by state and territory governments under a COAG agreement, to be used by various authorities, agencies and departments.

So much was wrong with the bills that they cannot be fixed with mere amendments, the committee said.

“Whilst the committee supports the aims of the IMS bill, the bill would need a significant amount of re-drafting and not simple amending to be in a position where the committee could fully support the bill itself,” it said.

A government spokesperson confirmed the legislation would be reassessed.

“The Committee has made recommendations and we will work with the PJCIS to legislate these laws,” the spokesperson said.

The PJCIS, which is chaired by Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, recommended the legislation be redesigned around privacy, transparency and robust safeguards.

It said it should also be subject to Parliamentary oversight and annual reporting, the committee ruled.

The committee acknowledged the concerns that were raised by several submissions to the inquiry, which focused on the identity-matching and facial recognition aspects of the scheme.

Its harshest criticisms were of the complete lack of detail provided in the government’s legislation.

“The lack of detail in the IMS Bill has made the committee’s review challenging. The bill sets out a minimum framework for a regime that will allow the legal use of the identity-matching services,” the committee’s report said.

“A citizen should be able to read a piece of legislation and know what the legislation authorises and what rights and responsibilities the citizen has in relation to that legislation.”

“This is especially important in the case of the IMS bill which has the potential to affect the majority of the Australian population. It is clear that the IMS bill does not inform the citizen reader in this way.”

In tabling the report in Parliament, Mr Hastie said the committee still backed the underlying goals of the bill, but the legislation doesn’t currently “adequately incorporate enough detail”.

“The committee acknowledges these concerns and believes that while the bill’s explanatory memorandum sets out governance arrangements such as existing and contemplated agreements and access policy, they are not adequately set out in the current bill,” Mr Hastie said.

“In the committee’s view, robust safeguards and appropriate oversight mechanisms should be explained clearly in the legislation,” he said.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus congratulated the PJCIS members for “putting the national interest first and sending a strong message about the value of this committee” and criticised the government for the state of the legislation.

“The potential implications of these two new facilities for the privacy of all Australians are profound. Those implications do not appear to have even been considered by the minister for home affairs or by his department,” Mr Dreyfus said in Parliament.

A central concern surrounding the legislation was that it would pave the way for mass surveillance, and this was raised by many submitters to the committee’s inquiry.

Mr Dreyfus said that while Labor did not believe this was the government’s intentions with the bill, they didn’t do enough to prevent the possibility of this.

“Given the near complete absence of legislated safeguards in the IMS bill, those concerns cannot simply be ignored,” he said

“If there is no intention for the proposed identity-matching services to be used to engage in mass surveillance activities, the government should not object to amending the bill to ensure that those services cannot, as a matter of law, be used in that manner,” he said.

The committee’s rejection of the scheme was welcomed by Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow, who said the legislation as presented was dangerous.

“That’s our democracy working as it should work. There were very serious concerns about the bill,” Mr Santow told ABC Radio National.

“The bill would for the very first time in our history provide the legal framework for mass surveillance in Australia. That obviously raises very serious concerns about the right to privacy for Australians.”

The bills were first introduced in early 2018 after plans for a national facial biometric database incorporating state government drivers’ licence photos were announced by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in late 2017.

The plans would have marked a dramatic expansion of the government’s facial recognition capability, allowing law enforcement and agencies to match photos, including drivers licences and passports, to identify suspects and criminals in public places.

The legislation has been labelled “sloppy and dangerous” by the Human Rights Legal Centre, which said they “effectively hand 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”.

“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,” the HRLC said in a submission to the PJCIS.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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