Australian governments should abandon plans for a nationwide facial recognition system and other controversial tech expansions until there is a charter of human rights, privacy and digital rights experts have said.
After parliamentary committee resoundingly rejected the Coalition’s plans to launch a nationwide facial recognition system, government ministers have lined up to recommit to the legislation, while taking into account a push for further privacy safeguards and transparency.
But while welcoming the committee’s surprise move to send the legislation back to the drawing board, civil and digital rights advocates want any new powers to be put on hold until Australia has its own charter of human rights.
The Human Rights Legal Centre is currently developing its own draft framework for such a charter, and is set to launch a large-scale national campaign for it in the coming months.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security handed down its report on the government’s Identity-Matching Services Bill and Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill last week, ordering both to be completely redrafted due to a lack of transparency and privacy concerns.
The legislation paves the way for the “secure, automated and accountable exchange of identity information between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments”.
The Coalition wants to create a national biometrics database, dubbed The Capability, to be fed data like drivers licences by state and territory governments under a 2017 COAG agreement.
Agencies and law enforcement would then be able to access the database to complete one-to-one and one-to-many facial recognition checks.
But these plans have now been derailed, with the committee entirely rejecting them in their current form.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said the Coalition would “of course” push ahead with its facial recognition plans regardless.
“It’s nothing about mass surveillance. It’s about making sure that we can protect Australians who have their identities stolen. The Department will sort that out with them and it will become legislation,” Mr Dutton said.
But while the government says it will plow ahead with the plans, no similar legislation should be introduced until Australia has a charter of human rights, Electronic Frontiers Australia policy lead Angus Murray told InnovationAus.com.
“All of this is happening in the context of Australia not having an enforceable legislated human rights framework. Until there’s a meaningful proposal to implement human rights at that level, none of this should be happening,” Mr Murray said.
“If this was going to be amended to adopt a fair and reasonable approach, the starting point would be to introduce enforceable human rights. Unless we have those safeguards I don’t think this is in any way feasible in any shape or form.”
The Australian Human Rights Legal Centre is set to launch a campaign for an Australian Charter of Human Rights. While it ideally wants these rights to be enshrined in the constitution, without a referendum, the organisation is encouraging the government to put the charter into legislation.
The charter would aim to ensure the government considers the human rights of citizens when it creates new laws and policies, and that people would have the power to hold the government to account when it crosses the line.
“The discussion about creating an Australian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms is long overdue. A charter would benefit the whole community in a range of ways, including by helping to prevent unfair intrusions into people’s private lives,” the HRLC said.
Such a charter would help to prevent some of the privacy concerns that have been associated with recently government tech-related pieces of legislation, including the encryption bill, metadata retention laws and the Consumer Data Right.
The Coalition must now listen to the community and its own committee when looking to redraft the facial recognition bills, Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said.
“The important next step will be for the government to listen to the wealth of advice provided to them on this bill – from academics, civil society experts, privacy advocates and members of the public, all of whom have outlined the need to balance our right to privacy with keeping our society safe,” he said.
“This must include measures that mitigate against racial and gender-based bias, tighten the scope to only valid law enforcement uses with proper judicial oversight and address the very real threat of identity theft and misuse by individuals.”
The EFA’s Mr Murray said the Coalition should not rush to reintroduce the legislation either, and needed to take the time to get it right.
“This is not something that should be rushed and any rushing of these serious impacts on Australia should be stopped completely,” he said.
“The biggest problem with this is that once these legislative provisions pass they are then cemented into our legal framework and that perpetuates the spiral towards some form of surveillance state and disparity, and it’s very, very difficult to walk back from, particularly without a human rights framework.”
The PJCIS’ strong stance in rejected the facial recognition bills was widely welcomed by the civil and digital rights groups.
“The committee taking seriously what industry and civil society are saying in terms of the tech impact of things like biometric facial recognition and human rights is extremely heartening. I applaud the committee for a very well-rounded and very reasonable report,” Mr Murray said.
The government’s legislation was “mass surveillance badly masquerading as public safety” according to Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said.
“The danger with these types of powers is always mission creep and misuse by authorities – as we’ve already seen with the metadata retention scheme,” Mr Singleton Norton told InnovationAus.com.
“It’s incredibly welcoming to see the PJCIS outright reject this bill. It’s exactly what our parliamentary checks and balances should be doing – assessing the breadth of issues and advising the government of the day when they have not considered the consequences.”