Victoria will be the first state to test the federal government’s controversial national facial recognition database, but access to the biometric data will be restricted to state authorities, at least in the short-term.
The Victorian government said on Tuesday that the state’s driver licence data had been uploaded to its own digital platform and would soon be transferred to the federal national biometrics database – the National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution (NDLFRS).
The Tasmania government would soon do the same, making the two states the first to use the national database following a COAG agreement in 2017.
The uploaded data would undergo three months of testing and checks before the database is operational by the end of the year.
But the Victorian government has rejected the federal government’s attempts for its own agencies and other states to access this data, restricting it initially to just VicRoads and Victoria Police due to privacy and security concerns.
This may change when the Coalition passes the identity-matching legislation currently before Parliament though.
The NDLFRS is the technical system that enables driver licence facial images and related information – supplied by the states and territories – to be made available to agencies and authorities around the country, with permission from the states.
The creation of the database stems from a COAG agreement in late 2017 on facial recognition, biometrics and data sharing.
The Victorian government will upload the photographs from the drivers licences, dates of birth, gender and licence number to the database, and use the facial recognition technology on offer from the Department of Home Affairs.
To justify the use of the database, the Victorian government has said it would lead to a crackdown on identity fraud, specifically drivers using multiple licences.
It said the current image-based identification methods are “cumbersome”, with sharing between agencies taking days or longer.
The use of the NDLFRS will “help get dangerous drivers off our roads by reducing the chance of people using multiple licences to avoid demerit points or licence cancellations”, Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings said.
“This technology will help keep government agencies ahead of the pack when it comes to combating identity fraud, which is one of the most common and costly crimes facing our state. We are doing this as part of a national agreement, while ensuring the privacy of Victorians is not compromised,” Mr Jennings said.
Victorians would not be able to opt-out of the system, and prevent their data being uploaded to the database, with the government claiming they gave consent for it when they applied for a drivers licence.
“Consent to share personal data has already been provided by Victorian driver licence applications and holders at the time of application and renewal, by agreeing to the VicRoads privacy statement and collection notice. It’s not possible to ‘opt out’ of the NDLFRS,” a government fact sheet said.
The same fact sheet also said that the system “cannot be used for mass surveillance”.
“Once implemented, approved Victorian government agencies can use advanced face matching technology to review specific photographs. The system identifies distinctive facial characteristics, which can then be compared against driver licence images. This technology is already in use in Australia for passports and immigration purposes,” it said.
Due to concerns about privacy and private sector access, the Victorian government will not be allowing access to the driver licence data to any national agency or other states.
Initially, access will only be allowed for VicRoads and Victoria Police, while other state departments can apply for access and will have to sign an agreement with Home Affairs and VicRoads to access the data.
While it is a positive step, the Victorian government should have raised these concerns before signing the COAG agreement nearly two years ago, Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said.
“Whilst it is certainly welcoming to see the Victorian government place restrictions on the use of drivers licence photos, these are the kinds of concerns that should have been raised in 2018 when they first agreed to share data sets,” Mr Singleton Norton told InnovationAus.com.
“There is no empirical evidence that supports the assertion that blanket surveillance is effective at preventing serious crime and terrorism either domestically or internationally – in fact if anything, these approaches almost always erode rights and diminish freedoms.”
The stand by the Victorian government will hopefully lead to a greater focus on the rights and privacy of Australians when considering new surveillance technologies, Mr Singleton Norton said.
“Of course we want to ensure that our law enforcement agencies have the tools to do their job – namely, protecting the populace from harm. But that cannot and should not be at the expense of individual people’s rights,” he said.