Australia's Facial Recognition Database Is Causing More Concerns

facial recognition database australiaImage: Getty Images

Ahead of the 2019 Australian federal election, two bills that would pave the way for a nation-wide facial database were ditched. Since then they have been re-introduced and a parliamentary inquiry is looking into their viability.

A public hearing into the bills that was scheduled for next week has been unexpectedly cancelled and it's not yet clear why. Here's what we know so far.

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The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is undertaking an inquiry into two facial recognition bills, the Identity-matching Services (IMS) Bill 2019 and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2019. It was scheduled to hold a public hearing on October 18, but it's since been cancelled without a reason.

The PJCIS is a committee comprised of parliamentary members, including Eric Abetz, Kristina Keneally and Tim Wilson. It's responsible for reviewing existing legislation as well as bills considered to be controversial.

Aside from the facial recognition bills, it's also looking into other relevant security and intelligence issues like the 2015 metadata laws.

Gizmodo Australia reached out to PJCIS for clarification as to why the public hearing was cancelled and whether it will be postponed. A spokesperson responded telling us the PJCIS has "considered its forward work program and has chosen to make some amendments" and that information about further public hearings would be made available on the website. It did not provide us with a date.

Digital rights advocacy group, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), has shared its concerns regarding the bills.

"The bills are underpinning a move to create a massive expansion of storage of biometric data — being photos of people’s faces — which will be fed into by Australian states and territories' drivers' licence photos as well as passport photos," EFA said in a media release.

"National concerns around facial recognition systems have been fuelled by recent international events including yesterday's revelation that China has mandated people will need to scan their faces before accessing the internet or obtaining a new phone number as part of a social credit system.

"In addition, facial recognition played a role in recent protests in Hong Kong."

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The Chinese government announced new facial recognition laws would come into effect from December 2019, forcing its citizens to use their biometric data in order to sign up for internet or get a mobile phone.

This means around 854 million faces using the internet, according to reports, will be uploaded to a mass facial database in an effort to "safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of citizens in the cyberspace."

Aside from the general draconian feel to this news from China, other concerns for nation-wide databases, like the one being considered for Australia, include the right to free movement and a worry over sensitive biometric information being hacked.

"It is our view that the scope of the Bills dramatically and inappropriately exceeds Australian’s reasonable expectations to human rights protections including the right to privacy and freedom of association," EFA’s Policy Committee chair, Angus Murray, said.

"It is incongruous to accept that a person who obtained a driver’s licence in say 2005, would have consented that their licence photo would have been used for anything other than roadside identification purposes."

If both bills passed into law in Australia, a database, ominously referred to as 'The Capability', will hold the information of every Australian passport as well driver's licences.

The primary bill, the IMS 2019 Bill, looks to provide the legal framework in order for the Capability to match faces while the Australian Passports Amendment (IMS) Bill 2019 allows for the digitisation and uploading of passport data into the system. Its purposes are split into two primary functions; civil and criminal.

The national security aspect of the bill is in order for law enforcement agencies to conduct investigations or gather intelligence for "purposes relating to Australia's defence, security, international relations or law enforcement interests." The civil side is reserved for "the verification of an individual’s identity... for example, in the delivery of government services or for private sector organisations to meet regulatory identity verification requirements."

Its web page on the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has since been pulled, but a Wayback Machine archive outlines how the technology would differ depending on the information required.

The Face Identification Service (FIS) is a service matching an unknown face against a database of faces to determine their identity. This would likely work similar to what you might see in crime or spy movies like The Bourne Identity. The Face Verification Service (FVS) matches a provided identification document, like a driver’s licence, against existing information within the system to confirm it matches. DHA has said "often these transactions will occur with the individual's consent."

Key word being often.

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Optus recently provided a submission to the PJCIS in support of the bill for that second service, FVS, and hopes to be able to use the Capability for identity matching services for its customers. We've reached out to Telstra to see if it has similar intentions.

Once the bill was first introduced at the 2017 Council of Australian Governments (COAG), states began looking into how they could implement facial recognition within their own states while they waited for the federal legislation to pass.

So far, just Victoria has uploaded the state's driver's licences to the national database while Queensland rolled out its own facial recognition system in time for the Commonwealth Games in April 2018. It's since been revealed it wasn't actually very good at tracking any of the faces it was meant to look for, according to ABC News. That database specifically was limited to just police records rather than the licences from Queensland's road authority, Department of Transport and Main Roads.

But the bills propose a database that extends beyond just passports and driver's licences. The COAG agreement suggests the following could be uploaded into the database.

  • An Australian passport
  • An Australian driver licence
  • An ImmiCard or visa issued under the Migration Act 1958
  • A certificate of Australian citizenship issued under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007
  • Any other type of identity document with a facial image that a state or territory wishes to include in the National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution.

An IDMatch beta site, replacing the government's Document Verification Services site, shows the extent of its aspirations; a one-stop shop for identity matching.

Image: IDMatch

While the bills have yet to be re-introduced into parliament, aside from the current PJCIS inquiry, Australia has a long fight ahead if it wants to avoid being the next country with facial recognition capability.

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