Govt to spend $18.5m on national facial recognition system

Biometrics will be used to identify terrorists and other criminals, government says

The federal government has allocated $18.5 million to fund a new law enforcement tool dubbed the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability. The system will allow agencies to match images of unidentified individuals to photographs stored in a range of government records.

From mid-2016, law enforcement and government agencies will share and match photographs on identify documents to strengthen identity-checking processes.

The system will provide a one-to-one image-based verification service among Commonwealth agencies, with other government agencies expected to join over time.

A one-to-many image-based identification service will follow to allow law enforcement and security agencies to match one photograph of an unknown person against many photographs contained in government records to help establish their identity.

According to the government, this will help put a name to the face of terrorists, murderers, and armed robbers, and will also help to detect fraud cases involving criminals that use multiple identities.

According to justice minister Michael Keenan, the system will operate within the protections provided under the Privacy Act 1988. Agencies using the capability will need to have legislative authority to collect and use facial images.

“The capability will not be a centralised biometric database and will not retain or store any images that are shared between agencies,” he said in a statement.

The government is also working with states and territories to look at whether police and road agencies can participate in the program.

According to the Identity Crime and Misuse in Australia 2013-14 report, released today by the government, identity crime affects between 750,000 and 900,000 Australians each year. It costs Australia around $2 billion per year.

The biometric announcement follows on from the government’s Document Verification Service (DVS). This provides organisations with a way to electronically match identifying information or credentials – but not photographs – on government issued identity documents.

“These checks are conducted in real time to inform decisions that rely upon the confirmation of a person’s identity. It provides a key tool for organisations that are seeking to prevent the enrolment or registration of customers, clients and even staff who may be using fraudulent identities,” said Keenan.

In May, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) announced that 90 per cent of air passengers will be screened using facial biometrics by 2020.

Speaking at the Biometrics Institute Asia Pacific conference in Sydney, ACBPS major capability division first assistant secretary Randall Brugeaud said that the Smartgate system currently screens 35 per cent of passengers.

Read more: Your face is part of Australia's 'national security weapon': should you be concerned?

Twenty four countries are taking part in the agency’s offshore biometrics program.

“We have a number of pressures at the border with significant increases in international trade and travel. For us to manage the new demands, we need to do something different,” he said at the time.

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