Australian privacy groups call for biometrics commissioner as facial recognition programs expand

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The Australian government’s database of citizen photos is slated to expand by millions of images in the coming year, and some Aussies are worried.

The Face Verification Service (FVS), announced by Justice Minister Michael Keenan in November of last year, is intended to underpin the country’s burgeoning Govpass identity verification platform and provide a federally-verified biometric to deter identity crime. FVS originally included only images captured by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as part of citizenship and immigration applications. Those images can be shared with federal police and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Now officials are preparing to add approximately 12 million photos from existing passports to FVS. Negotiations are also underway with local-level governments to allow FVS to access images from millions more driver’s licenses.

The plan has put privacy advocates on edge with fears of “scope creep” and lack of citizen consent. While participation in the Govpass program is voluntary, there is thus far no choice for Australians to opt out of having their images included in FVS.

“We don’t want to build a huge monster of a system and use it for more than it was intended,” Queensland Privacy Commissioner Philip Green told InnovationAus.

These concerns are leading to calls for more transparency and better regulation of biometric programs. In a leading Australian Law journal, Dr. Monique Mann, lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology and a director of the Australian Privacy Foundation, and Marcus Smith, adjunct professor at the University of Canberra, find that Australia’s privacy laws have “lagged behind,” without sufficient legislative attention to biometric governance.

“In the absence of a constitutional bill of rights or a cause of action for serious invasion of privacy in Australia, there are limited protections in relation to biometric information, and those that do exist…are subject to exemptions,” the report finds.

The authors recommend that a Biometrics Commissioner be appointed to oversee FVS and any other program involving the collection and use of citizen’s of biometric data.

As public debate persists, the Australian government is moving forward with new complementary program to identify “unknown persons” suspected of “serious offenses” through facial biometrics. The Face Identification Service is expected to launch this year.

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Kaelyn Lowmaster is an Asia-focused Market Analytics and Research Associate with One World Identity. Prior to joining OWI, she worked in the Army's International Affairs Division at the Pentagon, and coordinated Johns Hopkins' graduate programs in Nanjing, China. Kaelyn holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a graduate certificate from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and a BA from Colgate University. She is currently based in Tokyo.