​Government commits AU$18.5m for National Biometric Matching Capability

The federal government has committed to investing AU$18.5 million to establish the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, expected to be up and running by mid-2016.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The Australian government has announced that it will be spending AU$18.5 million to establish the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability.

From mid next year, law-enforcement and government agencies will be able to use the new system to share facial images among themselves.

Minister for Justice and Minister for Assisting the Prime Minister of Counter-Terrorism Michael Keenan said the system will initially provide one-to-one matching functionality to help establish the identity of unknown persons against photographs contained in government records.

"This process will expedite putting a name to the face of terror suspects, murderers, and armed robbers, and will also help to detect fraud cases involving criminals that use multiple identities," he said.

The Attorney-General's Department said recently that the capability is designed to replace existing manual, ad hoc facial image sharing arrangements between agencies. It added that agencies will be able to share still images, and ruled out the addition of directly feeding licence plate cameras or closed-circuit TV into the system. However, stills from such cameras could be used.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Defence, and the Attorney-General's Department under the auspices of AusCheck will have first access to the system, the Attorney-General's Department revealed at the time.

There are expectations that other agencies will join over time, including state and territory police and road agencies, Keenan said.

Keenan also reassured that the system is being established with "strong privacy safeguards", ensuring that it will not be a centralised biometric database, and therefore will not retain or store any images that are shared between agencies.

"This initiative does not involve new powers for the Commonwealth; it's simply a mechanism to share existing information already held by jurisdictions," he said.

"The new capability will operate within the protections provided under the Privacy Act 1988, and agencies using the capability will need to have legislative authority to collect and use facial images."

Keenan's reassurance follows the federal government's recent track record of accidentally releasing personal details. For instance, in March this year, the world's G20 leaders' passport numbers, visa details, and dates of birth were accidentally emailed to the organisers of the Asian Cup by a staff member of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), which chose to avoid notifying the leaders.

Meanwhile, in February last year, the DIBP also published the details of approximately 9,250 asylum seekers.

The introduction of National Facial Biometric Matching Capability will be in addition to the government's Document Verification Service (DVS), a system that allows authorised organisations to electronically match in real-time identifying information or credentials -- but not photographs -- on certain government-issued identity documents.

The DVS was recently overhauled as part of a four-year AU$4.8 million contract that the Australian government signed with Oakton last year.

"Building on the DVS, the new capability will allow agencies to match a person's photograph against an image on one of their government records," Kennan said.

"This will help prevent more insidious forms of identity fraud -- where criminals create fake documents using their own photos, with personal information stolen from innocent victims. It will also assist victims more easily restore their compromised identities."

Last week, the Northern Territory Police partnered with NEC Australia to implement facial-recognition technology to allow the agency to search through its database of photos, closed-circuit television footage, and videos taken from body-worn cameras, drones, and phones to identify persons of interest or missing persons.

In June, CrimTrac launched a tender to upgrade its existing biometric identity system. Once updated, the national automated fingerprint identification system is expected to have the potential to not only recognise fingerprints, but also palm prints, footprints, and facial images.

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