The Australian government is pushing ahead with plans to develop a national facial recognition database, with long-overdue reviews into ‘identity security’ laws now underway in parliament.
The Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is currently discussing three new controversial pieces of legislation, after state governments unanimously agreed to develop the biometric identification system in 2017.
NATIONAL FACIAL RECOGNITION
Australia’s move towards a sophisticated surveillance society is back in full swing.
In October 2017, the Australian government announced a national push for a tough overhaul of current ‘anti-terrorism’ laws at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Canberra.
In the meeting, state leaders and ministers unanimously approved a counter-terrorism package that “enhances public safety” by increasing surveillance of Australian citizens – including utalising new national facial recognition capabilities to monitor potential ‘terrorists’.
The announcement saw all states and territories agree to hand over driver’s licenses and passport photos for a national identification database, allowing for real-time facial recognition when matched to state CCTV footage, thus bypassing current restrictions on obtaining such information.
Government officials would establish new National Facial Biometric Matching Capability systems, and signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on Identity Matching Services to outline the changes.
Commenting on the new agreement, the Premier of Tasmania showed no reserve in support of the overhaul, declaring “we live in very uncertain times” and “this is the new world order”.
Australia’s leading privacy and civil liberties organisations condemned the decision, calling the facial recognition database ‘unnecessary’ and ‘fundamentally incompatible with a free and open society’.
Following a delay, plans to push ahead with national facial recognition are moving full steam ahead.
BACK ON THE AGENDA
The Department of Home Affairs has finally commenced a review of new proposed national security legislation, specifically relating to an agreement between state and territory governments to develop a facial recognition database.
The review comes as the federal government has reaffirmed its commitment to pursue the controversial face-matching and biometrics scheme after the 2019 Federal Election.
Three new controversial pieces of legislation have been introduced to parliament that guide arrangements for the ‘protection and management’ of identity information on a national scale, relating to plans to develop advanced biometric systems across the country:
The Identity-matching Services Bill 2019 is intended to “facilitate the secure, automated and accountable exchange of identity information between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments, pursuant to the objectives of the Intergovernmental Agreement”.
The Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2019 amends the Australian Passports Act to provide a legal basis for ensuring that “the Minister is able to make travel document data available for all the purposes of, and by the automated means intrinsic to, the identity-matching services to which the Commonwealth and the States and Territories agreed in the IGA”.
The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (2019 Measures No. 1) Bill 2019 contains a range of amendments intended to strengthen Australia’s counter-terrorism legislative framework.
All three pieces of legislation will fundamentally shape the underlying guidelines that will dictate the development and management of the new national facial recognition system.
The review is meant to shape a new iteration of the initial plans agreed by governments in 2017.
Digital rights advocates have branded the dramatic expansion of the government’s facial recognition capability as a “massive privacy overreach”, with concerns over security risks surrounding the large database and the implications on the privacy of innocent Australians.
THE SURVEILLANCE STATE
Once upon a time, the personal life of the individual citizen was considered to be a sphere of absolute privacy, where one could reliably escape the prying eyes of the outside world.
Today, this concept has been eroded with the rise of new mechanisms used to capture, aggregate and analyse massive amounts of data from cameras, sensors, smartphones and social media sites.
Biometric technology has grown to become the driving factor that has led to the birth of a diverse range of spying mechanisms in many countries across the planet, including Australia.
Plans for a facial recognition system underpin concerns for an approaching totalitarian surveillance state, including predictions that a Chinese-style ‘Social Credit System’ may reach Australia.
We have already seen the beginning stages, including new CCTV surveillance technology introduced in Perth that is able to recognise individual faces and track citizen movements across the CBD.
Furthermore, in Darwin, local authorities are installing a number of additional CCTV cameras along The Esplanade for ‘security reasons’, as well as at key intersections in the CBD.
Facial recognition cameras are already deployed across Gold Coast trains and buses following the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and the technology is set to replace passports at Australian airports.
Indeed, as the national face-matching database begins to take shape, it will undoubtedly power the legality of all systems listed above, leaving many privacy advocates concerned we may now be seeing the approaching biometric dystopia manifest before our very eyes.
SUBMISSIONS TO THE REVIEW
The Committee invites written submissions addressing any or all aspects of the bill(s) to:
Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security
PO Box 6021
Canberra ACT 2600
Phone: +61 2 6277 2360
Fax: +61 2 6277 2067
Submissions are requested by 6 September 2019. Further information about making a submission to a committee inquiry can be found at the following link.
INTERGOVERNMENTAL AGREEMENT ON IDENTITY MATCHING SERVICES | Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG)
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