Immigration

Face recognition safeguard calls rejected

Federal government officials behind a national facial recognition scheme have rejected calls for stronger safeguards.

Architects of a facial recognition system which could potentially target jaywalkers and litterbugs have rejected suggestions that stronger safeguards are needed to prevent overreach.

State and federal governments have agreed to give police forces real-time access to passport, visa, citizenship and driver's licence images for use in various criminal investigations.

The proposed laws will enable the Department of Home Affairs to collect, use and disclose identification information including facial biometric matching.

Victoria has threatened to pull out of the identity-matching scheme, fearing the enabling legislation could expand Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton's powers beyond what was agreed by the states.

It is also concerned private companies and local governments would be allowed access to the facial recognition data.

But the Department of Home Affairs argues there is nothing inconsistent between the legislation and a deal struck between the state and federal governments.

At a parliamentary inquiry hearing on Thursday, Home Affairs Assistant Secretary Andrew Rice said decisions around allowing private companies or councils to access the data would be settled by a ministerial council.

Mr Rice said such decisions were not necessarily simple to enact, given sign-off was needed from all jurisdictions involved.

"That needs to be a policy position by the parties to the agreement, the nine jurisdictions, that they support that," Mr Rice told committee members in Melbourne.

It was open to individual jurisdictions and data-holding agencies to constrain the information each provided.

Home Affairs officials also pushed back against a proposal for agencies to obtain warrants before gaining access to facial identification, arguing it would slow down people trying to rapidly respond to security threats.

Law Council of Australia president Morry Bailes has urged federal parliament to clearly define the line between appropriate and illegitimate use of the facial recognition system.

"If that line can creep towards broad social surveillance ... that line can also creep further to a full social-credit style system of government surveillance of Australian citizens," he told the committee.

Mr Bailes is concerned giving government agencies the ability to identify a face in a crowd could result in CCTV footage being used to prosecute "low-level" unlawful conduct.

"Clearly, provision of such capability has been desirable to facilitate detection of would-be terrorists scoping a site for a potential terrorist attack," he said.

"But that very same identity-matching capability might also be used for range of activities that Australian citizens regard as unacceptable."

Home Affairs officials argued facial recognition systems were already used by officials checking visas and passports at the border.

But Labor senator Jenny McAllister is concerned the facial recognition plan extends far beyond law enforcement and border security.

"The purpose of this bill expands functions like that to supporting traffic road safety objectives," Senator McAllister said.

"So it's considerably broader than national security."

The facial recognition system would initially be used by the public sector, but later rolled out to private companies like banks and telcos for verification purposes, rather than identifying unknown individuals.

Home Affairs has already acquired the facial recognition software but won't name the provider, in case the vendor is hacked by those trying to find undercover police officers or people in witness protection.

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