Senate passes passport biometric, RFID legislation

The Australian Senate last night passed tougher passport laws providing for the use of facial biometrics and radio frequency identification technology, as well as the setting up of comprehensive data exchanges. However, while the federal government claims Australians will be better protected by the new legislation, the Australian Democrats and privacy advocates disagree.

The Australian Senate last night passed tougher passport laws providing for the use of facial biometrics and radio frequency identification technology, as well as the setting up of comprehensive data exchanges.

However, while the federal government claims Australians will be better protected by the new legislation, the Australian Democrats and privacy advocates disagree.

According to a statement from the office of Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, the legislation -- planned to come into effect on 1 July 2005 -- will provide "a modern legal structure to support the government's continuing efforts to combat identity-related fraud and strengthen the identity of the passport issuing process". Furthermore, the statement claims that "the use of emerging technologies, such as facial biometrics ... will ensure that Australians are issued with a world class passport".

However, the Australian Democrats and privacy advocates have reiterated their concern about the use of biometric data and RFID tags in Australian passports. Democrats acting foreign affairs spokesperson Andrew Bartlett said his party opposed the new laws due to possible misuse of the relatively new technology. "Although the Democrats do not object to the use of biometric technology, we are acutely aware of the privacy implications associated with such technology," he said.

Speaking with ZDNet Australia  this morning, Australian Privacy Foundation spokesperson Roger Clarke said that the federal government had "abjectly failed to inform the public as to what they wanted to do". In addition, he said, the government had failed to take into account "delicate balances" in the existing passport legislation when it was being re-written for the new legislation. Clarke was vociferous in his statement that the new passport legislation was extremely dangerous as it "creates the possibility of identity theft on a massive scale".

Clarke also questioned the ability of RFID technology to provide meaningful and secure information at any stage of the security process. He said that the basic function of RFID tags is to electronically say "Hey - I'm here! This is my identification number" - and not much else; a function which he said was suitable for limited use in a retail environment but not much else. He was unable to comment further on the actual use to which the tags will be put under the new legislation as he maintained that the government had not released any information on how they were going to use the technology.

The Australian Privacy Foundation has made a number of submissions to the government with respect to the legislation and has been involved in a consultative role throughout 2004. However, in one submission, dated March 2004, the organisation made its concerns clear when it stated that the consultative process "has been nothing more than a briefing about government intentions, with inadequate information, no ability to form a view on a more substantive proposal, and no real prospect of interested parties being able to influence the review in any significant respect".

At least part of the impetus to implement the use of facial biometric technology into the Australian passport system is coming from new requirements by the United States Department of Homeland Security for foreign travellers entering the U.S. The requirements state that passports issued after 26 October 2004 must utilise biometric features such as digital photographs or fingerprints. Passports issued before that date will not be affected.

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