Qld biometric bill gets a pass

James Riley
Editorial Director

An amendment to legislation in Queensland that would give the state’s law enforcement access to shared biometric face matching services is being described as “incredibly problematic” by digital privacy advocates.

Under the Police and Other Legislation (Identity and Biometric Capability) Amendment Bill 2018, authorities would have speedier access to photos from driver’s licences, visas, and passports, without the need to seek a warrant.

Police minister Mark Ryan said access was a “a vital investigative tool that will allow police to stay one step ahead of terrorists and criminals involved in identity fraud, with identity crime impacting one in 20 Australians every year and the annual cost to the Australian community estimated to be $2.2 billion. Image matching services will also help identify disaster victims.”

Mark Ryan: Biometric face-matching across the nation is a “vital investigative tool”

The amendment comes ahead of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games next month.

Queensland is the first state to make amendments to state laws to reflect a unanimous Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreement to allow law enforcement agencies across the country to share access to passport, visa, citizenship and driver’s licence images.

But privacy advocates like Australian Privacy Foundation (APF) board member and Queensland University of Technology research fellow Dr Monique Mann have slammed the bill.

“We actually in Queensland don’t really know what we’re signing up for because the federal Bill hasn’t passed, and the agreements with other states have not been finalised either,” Dr Mann said.

“I don’t know what way Queensland considers it is leading here. Leading what would be my question, and I think that’s incredibly problematic.”

Dr Mann further said the new Bill heightens the risk for scope creep.

“I think there’s a real absence of suitable protection for individuals. There’s an absence of decision oversight, and I think there’s a massive potential for scope creep when we consider integration with CCTV networks, big data from the internet, and the sharing of information with federal agencies, such as the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission,” she said.

“This is incredibly problematic and not the sort of development we should be rushing through with inadequate consultation with experts and civil society organisations.”

Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said while it’s no surprise that changes to the Bill were made, it’s still “pretty worrying”.

“It was only a matter of time state governments amended their own legislation to allow access to the national database,” Mr Norton said.

“I think our concerns remain the same from when the COAG agreement was made. It’s a massive overreach of privacy of citizens because it’s not the police’s job to try and seek out the potential criminals,” he said.

“It’s actually them reaching into massive catch-all and pulling out possibilities based on prearranged algorithms. That sets the horrible precedent of what if the algorithm is wrong, what if it gives you false positives, or if it starts to racially profile based on the data that feeds back into it,” he said.

The amendment also raises questions of where this will leave Queensland’s introduction of its Human Rights Act, something which has long been debated about since the late 90’s.

On one hand the Palaszczuk Government made the public commitment to establish a Human Rights Act that would concern things including rights freedom of movement, privacy and reputation, and on the other hand, as Dr Mann puts it, is “anti-privacy, surveillance-state, anti-democratic.”

“This is schizophrenic. I don’t know whether their commitments to the Human Rights Act are empty because in my view it is irreconcilable,” she said.

When asked how the new Bill amendment will affect the outcome of the Human rights Act, a spokesperson for Queensland Attorney General Yvette D’Ath said she would “be working with key stakeholders and across government to finalise the development of a proposed Bill to deliver on this commitment.”

Mr Ryan, however, said the privacy rights of individuals would continue to be upheld.

“As detailed by the federal government, the body in charge of the national database, the system will be implemented in consultation with the Australian Privacy Commissioner and it will be subject to audits by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner,” he told InnovationAus.com.

“It is also important to note that the Queensland Police Service and other agencies will continue to be held accountable for the legal use of the database by external bodies such as privacy commissioners, ombudsmen and anti-corruption or integrity commissioners. Agencies will require a lawful basis to collect and use facial information.

“This database is not about taking anyone’s rights away, but ensuring every Queenslander and every visitor’s right to stay safe is assured.”

Dr Mann also questioned the speed in which the amendment was passed. It took the Queensland government just over two weeks to get a committee set up to assess the plausibility of an amendment, and to pass the Bill through parliament.

“The consult was more than a box ticking exercise. The Queensland government weren’t actually seriously interested in engaging with any academic experts or civil society organisations,” Dr Mann said. “The consultation and reporting period was as quick as a blink of an eye.”

Mr Norton said there’s still clearly more room for consultation, after pointing out the COAG agreement happened just as quickly.

“There’s no transparency … that’s part of the problem. They’re trying to push it through as quickly as possible because they know there will be backlash,” he said.

While it may not look like the federal bill underpinning the COAG agreement will pass in time for the Commonwealth Games as the Queensland government has hoped, it will not go unscrutinised.

A joint committee on intelligence and security will examine both the Identity-matching Services Bill and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill.

The two proposed laws will formalise the COAG agreement, which underpins the federal government’s new $18.5 million facial biometrics matching scheme.

The Identity-matching Services Bill 2018 will authorise the Department of Home Affairs to collect, use and disclose identification information in order to operate the systems that will support a set of new biometric face-matching services.

The Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2018 will authorise the Minister for Foreign Affairs to disclose personal information for the purpose of participating in a service to share or match information relating to the identity of a person.

The committee, chaired by Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, is accepting submissions until March 21, and final report will be released by mid-May 2018.

Mr Norton has welcomed move to pass the amendments through a joint committee.

“If we end up there we’re still not going to be happy, but if we do go there we want it to be an informed debate. We want things to be considered. We want things to see things feed into that process,” he said.

“We want to see the potential ramifications of the invasion of privacy weighed up because if we need to give law enforcements better tools, better services to do their jobs, we want to do that.

“The problem comes without warrants, without oversight, without transparency, and that goes for how the laws are constructed and just as how much the police act them.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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