Legislation for Australian automated facial recognition enters Parliament

Proposed laws are touted to reduce identity crime, prevent terrorism, and keep people safe at this year's Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

The Australian government has introduced a pair of Bills into the House of Representatives on Wednesday that would allow for the creation of a system to match photos against identities of citizens stored in various federal and state agencies.

Introduced by newly minted Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, the Identity-Matching Services Bill 2018 authorises the Department of Home Affairs to operate a central hub for communicating between agencies.

"The hub is not a database and does not conduct any facial biometric matching; rather, it acts like a router, transmitting matching requests received from user agencies to facial image databases. These databases conduct the matching using recognition software and return a response back via the hub," Dutton told Parliament on Wednesday.

"The hub does not store any personal information, but does store data about transactions for auditing and oversight purposes. This approach enables the matching of images between agencies that operate different recognition systems that otherwise may not be compatible."

Dutton said the Bill supported the government's "digital transformation agenda", and offered significant cost savings and "greater identity assurance" for companies needing to comply with anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing regulations.

An annual report will be handed to Parliament on the system, Dutton said, on usage of the system by public and private entities, as well as a statutory review after five years.

The Bill also allows the Minister for Home Affairs to expand the information used in the system, or to add new services.

"To ensure that privacy and other human rights implications of these rules are taken into account, the Bill requires these rules to be developed in consultation with the Information Commissioner and the Human Rights Commissioner," Dutton said.

Information about race, political opinions, religion, organisation member, sexual orientation, genetics, or criminal record is not used the system, but could be inferred by the identity information stored in the system -- name, address, date and place of birth, gender, and facial image.

Dutton touted the system as reducing identity crime, which he said hits one in 20 Australians each year, to the tune of AU$2.2 billion. In introducing an accompanying Bill, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill 2018 would allow for real-time crime fighting.

"Automated disclosure of passport data will enable agencies to detect identity fraud and national security threats in real-time -- and this is particularly important in ensuring the safety of Australians attending large-scale events, such as the upcoming Commonwealth Games," she said.

The pair of Bills make good on an agreement reached at COAG in October to introduce a national system allowing for a biometric matching.

"To be clear about this, this is not accessing photo ID information that is not currently available," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time. "These are all available to law enforcement agencies now and have been for many years, if not for generations.

"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."

Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews said at the time that state and territory motor vehicle agencies have been manually providing the same information for "a very long time".

"To say that it was inefficient or not fit for purpose is an understatement," he 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."

A survey conducted by Roy Morgan in October found that most respondents were not concerned by the proposed facial recognition system, with 67.5 percent stating they were unconcerned.

The survey found that the younger a responder was, the more concerned they were on average, but no one age bracket had a majority of respondents who were more concerned than not.

"Privacy is now a thing of the past," Roy Morgan quoted one respondent as saying.

"We have it on our passports already. I would be more concerned with social media such as Facebook and Snapchat. They own millions of facial photos which you can never remove," another said.

Attendees of the recent fifth Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground were watched by 820 new cameras equipped with facial recognition technology to scrutinise the crowd for safety threats.

Japanese electronics giant NEC said last year that population-wide facial surveillance was not a threat as the system would throw out too many false positives.

NEC Europe head of Global Face Recognition Solutions Chris de Silva said the simple reason why a system would fail is because with a large list of people to track, too many people look alike.

"We don't notice it, we don't see millions of people in one shot ... but how many times have people walked down the street following somebody that they thought was somebody they knew, only to find it isn't that person?" he told ZDNet.

"You're going to find false alarms, and you are going to get answers, but they are not going to be always correct, and the more of that you get, the less likely people are going to be happy about using the system."

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