Wait continues for facial recognition database legislation

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Amendments to the federal government’s highly controversial facial recognition database legislation were referred to the powerful national security committee nearly two years ago but an inquiry has yet to be launched into the changes.

Home Affairs this week went to the market for a private provider to develop new facial recognition technologies and to take over the hosting of the existing National Drivers Licence Facial Recognition Service, despite legislation allowing its use still not having passed Parliament.

The Department has now said that it had referred amendments to this legislation to the national security committee for inquiry, but the committee has still not launched such an investigation of the proposed changes.

The initiative stems from an agreement signed by the state and territory governments and the Commonwealth in 2017 for drivers licence photos to be fed into a national database to be used for authorities for facial recognition matching.

Canberra Parliament
Amendments to proposed facial recognition laws still in the wind

Many states have already transmitted these photos to the database, but it cannot be operated until legislation facilitating this is passed by Parliament.

The Coalition introduced the necessary legislation in 2018, but in the following year the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) rejected the bill, calling for it to be completely redrafted.

The legislation has not been seen in the three years since, and the facial recognition plan had stalled until Home Affairs issued the approach to market this week.

The bill paves the way for the “secure, automated and accountable exchange of identity information between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments”, and allows for the use of the national biometrics database.

But the PJCIS found that so much was wrong with it that it required a “significant amount of redrafting”. The Coalition has since amended the legislation and is committed to pursuing the scheme.

This week, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said that amendments to the Identity-Matching Services Bill had been referred to the PJCIS for another inquiry back in July 2020.

No public inquiry has been launched into these amendments by the PJCIS, and a spokesperson for the committee confirmed that no such investigation has taken place yet.

“The Committee is not currently inquiring into amendments to the Identity-Matching Services bill,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.

The legislation now appears highly unlikely to be passed before the upcoming federal election, expected to be in May this year.

Privacy advocates have criticised the government for issuing a tender for work on the facial recognition database before the accompanying legislation has been passed.

But in a response provided to InnovationAus, a Home Affairs spokesperson said the procurement is for activities covered by the 2017 intergovernmental agreement, and does not extend the services.

Identity services management is currently handled by NTT, but this contract is coming to an end on 30 June 2023, with a new provider now sought.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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