Setback for government’s facial recognition push

Parliamentary committee calls for facial recognition bill to be redrafted

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) has called for the redrafting of a government bill designed to establish a national facial recognition system.

There was bipartisan support for redrafting the Identity-matching Services Bill 2019 (IMS Bill), the PJCIS chair, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, this morning told the House of Representatives.

Participants in the PJCIS inquiry had raised the need “to ensure appropriate government governance and accountability and protection of the individual's right to privacy,” Hastie said.

“The committee acknowledges these concerns and believes that while the bill’s explanatory memorandum sets out governance arrangements, such as existing and contemplated agreements and access policies, they are not adequately set out in the current bill.”

“In the committee's view, robust safeguards and appropriate oversight mechanisms should be explained clearly,” Hastie added.

The IMS Bill and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2019 are intended to help facilitate the establishment of a federated biometrics system known as ‘The Capability’.

Initially, at least, the system is focused on facial identification and verification. The system will have a federated ‘hub and spoke’ architecture, with the Department of Home Affairs operating the hub.

The hub will route requests for identity data from government agencies, as well as non-government organisations, that have been given access. The bill also authorises the department to maintain a federated database of face images drawing on databases maintained by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

The IMS Bill outlines a range of services that will be offered through the system, including face identification, face verification, and identity data sharing.

Although all states and territories have signed up to the COAG agreement outlining the new system, Victoria has publicly expressed unease with governance arrangements (though has uploaded images to the National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution).

Hastie said that the PJCIS broadly supported for the objectives of the bill but felt that it “does not adequately incorporate enough detail”.  

Hastie said the IMS Bill should be redrafted around four principles. One is that that the biometrics regime should be “built around privacy, transparency” and subject to “robust safeguards”. Another is that the system should be subject to parliamentary oversight and have “reasonable, proportionate and transparent functionality”.

A third principle is that there should be annual reporting on the use of the identity-matching services. Finally, the bill should set out a requirement that there is a participation agreement setting out the obligations, in detail, of parties participating in the system.

The MP said that the committee also had concerns about the passports bill.

Those concerns relate to the use of automated decision-making, particularly where there were unfavourable outcomes for the subject. The bill will insert a provision in the Australian Passports Act 2005 allowing the minister to authorise a computer system to automatically make decisions relating to the powers in the act.

The PJCIS believes “that the bill should be amended to ensure that automated decision making can only be for decisions that produced favourable or neutral outcomes for the subject,” Hastie said.

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton has been approached for comment.

The government has previously indicated it wanted the face recognition legislation passed before the end of the year.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said that the IMS bill does not include the “limitations or safeguards” anticipated by the October 2017 COAG agreement.

“The bill includes almost no limitations or safeguards at all,” he told parliament. He said that the Home Affairs minister does not appear to have considered the “profound” potential implications of the interoperability hub and federated identity database.

Of particular concerns is the Face Identification Service (FIS) outlined in the bill, he said. The FIS would be available to law enforcement agencies.

“That service would enable authorities across Australia to use huge databases of facial images to determine the identity of an unknown person,” Dreyfus said.

“Using that service, a law enforcement agency could submit a facial image for matching against a database of facial images contained in a in government identification documents, such as a database containing every driver licence photo in Australia. In return, the agency would receive a small number of matching or near matching facial images from the database.”

He noted that submissions to the inquiry had raised the potential of such a service to be used for “mass or blanket surveillance”.

“Like my colleagues on the committee, I do not believe that the government is proposing to engage in or to facilitate the mass surveillance of Australians. But I do accept that given the near complete absence of legislated safeguards in the Identity-matching Services Bill 2019, those concerns cannot simply be ignored,” Dreyfus said.

He said if the government does not intend the services to be used in such a fashion, it should have no objections to amending the bill to ensure it is explicitly prohibited.

The Labor MP also said he was concerned that the service could be used to identify people engaged in protests. “As presently drafted, this bill would not prohibit authorities from using the proposed face matching services to identify individuals in a crowd who are engaging in lawful protest activity,” Dreyfus said.

“That would be concerning in the best of times. It is particularly concerning in the light of the authoritarian disposition of the minister for Home Affairs.”

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