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Committee rejects facial recognition legislation

New biometric surveillance laws have been rejected. Photo: AWE

Australia’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has ordered the government back to the drawing board, after rejecting laws to establish a national facial recognition database.

It is the first time since 2002 that a parliament committee has recommended new intelligence laws be withdrawn, saying the legislation needs to be redrafted to ensure citizen rights are protected.

SURVEILLANCE ROADBLOCK

Australia’s plans to develop a national facial recognition database have hit an unexpected roadblock, amid fears new laws could allow for the mass surveillance of citizens.

The Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has taken the unusual step of recommending the laws be completely overhauled, with a new regime set to be built around “privacy, transparency and subject to robust safeguards”.

Individuals in airports, shops and public spaces were set to be subjected to the laws, which would link the identities of Australians to a live biometric recognition database.

A government spokeswoman said “the Committee has made recommendations and we will work with the PJCIS to legislate these laws”.

Liberal MP and chair, Andrew Hastie, outlined the shortcomings of the legislation, saying that he had agreed with critics who submitted that the legislation lacked safeguards to ensure appropriate governance, accountability and protection of the individual’s right to privacy:

“The committee acknowledges these concerns and believes that while the bill’s explanatory memorandum sets out governance arrangements such as existing and contemplated agreements and access policy, they are not adequately set out in the current bill.

In the committee’s view, robust safeguards and appropriate oversight mechanisms should be explained clearly in the legislation.”

Labor’s Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, said members of the Committee were united in recommending the bill be “completely redrafted” and then referred back to the intelligence and security committee for further inquiry when reintroduced:

“That service would enable authorities across Australia to use huge databases of facial images to determine the identity of an unknown person.

The potential for such a service to be used for mass or blanket surveillance, such as CCTV being used to identify Australians going about their business in real time, was raised by numerous submitters to the inquiry.”

Nonetheless, the committee has said they fully support the objectives of the legislation, and will approve future legislation given the right provisions are in place.

NATIONAL DATABASE

In October 2017, Australian authorities announced the push for a tough overhaul of current ‘anti-terrorism’ laws at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Canberra.

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.

First introduced to Parliament in 2018, the bills were designed to enable a range of services to identify and cross-reference images of people’s faces.

After an extensive delay, the Department of Home Affairs announced a commencement of a review of the proposed national security legislation, specifically relating to an agreement between state and territory governments to develop a facial recognition database.

The Committee found that the bills failed to provide safeguards for Australians and needs to be completely rewritten. 

It was drafted in the vaguest language which left it up to bureaucrats and politicians to work out the details of any safeguards behind closed doors.

The bill says information can be shared for “identity or community protection activity”, “law enforcement” and “gathering intelligence”.

The information on the database could be shared not just with police or the intelligence services but with local governments and even private companies.

The decision has been described as a “rare bipartisan consensus on the right to privacy” and comes amidst harsh criticisms of the potential human rights abuses under this system.

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CRITICISMS OF THE BILL

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.

Critics of the plan have warned it could be used for mass surveillance, including even CCTV systems being used to identify Australians going about their daily business in real time.

University of NSW academic Monika Zalnieriute said the scheme’s original justification was to help identify suspects or victims of terrorism and criminal activity:

“The officially purported benefit of preventing ID fraud seems to shrink even further when considering the danger of the scheme creeping into a nationwide surveillance infrastructure.

Dr Zalnieriute, part of the Allens Hub for Technology, Law & Innovation, said Western governments were experimenting with facial recognition technology as China was expanding use to profile ethnic Uyghurs and monitor pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

She pointed to a trial by Queensland police during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and testing in Perth and Melbourne, where the technology has remained indefinitely.

Australia’s leading privacy and civil liberties organisations also condemned the decision, calling the database ‘unnecessary’ and ‘fundamentally incompatible with a free and open society’.

They have also called for further transparency moving forward, arguing that national identification systems are the foundation for ‘suspicionless, warrantless mass surveillance’ and are a ‘disproportionate invasion of the privacy rights of all Australians’.

TOTT News will keep all readers updated on continued plans to legislate and legalise a growing biometric surveillance network across the country.


RELATED CONTENT

Government’s surveillance bill rejected by security and intelligence committee | SMH

Why the Coalition blinked on the facial recognition database | AFR

Revealed: Australia’s national facial recognition system | TOTT News

Concerns raised over national facial recognition | TOTT News

Facial recognition ‘incompatible with a free society’, privacy groups warn | TOTT News

Rare bipartisan consensus on right to privacy | SMH



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One Comment on “Committee rejects facial recognition legislation”

  1. Protestant
    November 4, 2019 at 07:54 #

    Wow! That’s good news for a change!

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