The Australian Human Rights Commission has warned that bills to create a national facial recognition service will have an “unprecedented” impact on Australians’ privacy.
Commissioner Edward Santow appeared today before a hearing of an inquiry into the Identity-matching Services Bill 2018 and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill 2018.
Santow said that the Commission believes it is important to have “robust mechanisms” to verify identity in order to protect national security and combat serious crime, and that “well-targeted” mechanisms can help protect privacy by securing personal information.
However, he said, the commission does not believe the bills are “precisely targeted to achieve those aims”.
“They’re drafted too broadly with inadequate safeguards and that carries a high risk of violating the human rights of ordinary Australians,” he said. “That risk is most obvious in the area of privacy but it could also lead to discrimination and infringe other rights.”
The identity bill provides “the legal infrastructure to enable mass surveillance using facial recognition technology,” he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its submission to the inquiry said that it currently processes a few hundred identity-matching requests each year, but if the bills are passed that figure will likely grow to a few thousand each day — “a massive increase,” Santow observed.
The bills lack some of the limits suggested in the relevant explanatory memorandum and the October 2017 agreement between federal, state and territory governments to create the system, he added.
In a written submission to the inquiry the Victorian government indicated it is uneasy with the proposed governance arrangements for the system — and like the commission argued that the proposed legislation goes beyond what was envisaged by the intergovernmental agreement.
Santow said that the way the system is designed means that innocent people will appear as suspects in criminal investigations.
The breadth of the bill’s provisions could give law enforcement agencies “almost unrestricted power” to share personal data. The bill will also allow the minister to define new kinds of identity-matching services which could “significantly impinge on privacy without full parliamentary oversight”.
The commissioner said that a centralised system for accessing biometric data could also create a “honeypot” for criminals.
“Some of the purposes for which identity-matching services may be used do not appear to be of sufficient weight to justify potentially significant limitations on privacy,” the Commission’s written submission argued.
“Others are so broadly defined that they might be interpreted to allow law enforcement bodies and intelligence agencies to use the services to collect information almost without limitation.”
The proposed system is intended to act in a federated manner, facilitating the exchange of biometric data between authorised organisations.
It will comprise a number of services, including a Face Verification Service, which some private sector organisations are likely to be able to access, and a Face Identification Service, which will be restricted to law enforcement and national security agencies.