​Australian national security COAG says yes to facial biometric database

The group of Australian state and territory leaders has unanimously approved the prime minister's request for a country-wide database of citizens' driver's licence details.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The political heads of Australia's states and territories have unanimously agreed to establish Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's proposed facial biometric database, which will allow law enforcement agencies across the country to locate a citizen via real-time facial recognition.

Speaking at the national security COAG on Thursday, Turnbull said he and his fellow heads are committed to ensuring that Australian agencies have the tools, legislative backing, and resources to keep Australians safe and to respond to and prevent terrorist incidents.

"To be clear about this, this is not accessing photo ID information that is not currently available," he said, noting that the database solution will simply be bringing together federal government photo identification, passports, and visas with state- and territory-issued driver's licences.

"These are all available to law enforcement agencies now and have been for many years, if not for generations," he said, echoing remarks he made on Wednesday.

"It shouldn't take seven days to be able to verify someone's identity or seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest. It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time."

As the premier of Australia's most populous state, Gladys Berejiklian said New South Wales boasts also potentially some of the highest risks, and as a result flagged her support for the biometric capability.

"I think today's unanimous decision-making in relation to these important security matters is a sign of the times we all live in," she said, addressing COAG. "The threat situation we live in has not changed; it is not a maybe, it is probable, and it is important for us to come together."

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who heads a Labor government, told the forum the issues raised were not a matter of politics, but rather about providing law enforcement agencies with the appropriate tools to do their jobs.

"State and territory motor vehicle and driver's licensing agencies have been manually providing this information for a very long time. To say that it was inefficient or not fit for purpose is an understatement," Andrews said.

"In my judgement, it would be unforgiveable to not make changes like that when the technology is available, the competence, the know-how, and safeguards are available to effect that change."

Announcing the initiative on Wednesday, Turnbull told ABC Radio that adding driver's licences to the federal government's database of passport and immigration information will allow authorities to more quickly identify people suspected of or involved in terrorist activities.

The technology could also be used, for example, in surveillance at airports and shopping malls.

"It's simply a question of using technology and being proactive -- not being complacent," he said.

"We believe if we bring together driver's licences, then we can start to build up a national system that will enable us then more quickly to identify people, particularly to be able to identify people that are suspected of, or involved in terrorist activities.

"About half of the population have got a photograph in a federal government system of one kind or another."

Turnbull acknowledged the risk that such big and complex data could be compromised, but said steps will be taken to ensure it is protected.

"You can't allow the risk of hacking to prevent you from doing everything you can to keep Australians safe," he added.

"All of the big databases are protected against hacking. We are determined to keep Australians safe. And we must use every technology we can to do that.

"The alternative is to not use data at all."

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