The Federal government may soon implement fingerprint scans for clients of social security agency Centrelink, with two federal ministers so far refusing to rule out the proposition.
Centrelink currently has 6.5 million clients on various forms of pensions, family allowances, sickness, unemployment and study benefits.
After authorizing a tender calling for 31,000 fingerprint scanners to vet the identity of Centrelink staff, the office of Human Services minister Joe Hockey has rendered itself conspicuously silent on whether the government is planning to roll out finger-scanning to its clients.
Hockey's office was unavailable for comment and did not return numerous calls from Computerworld.
According to a Centrelink request for tender (RFT), the fingerprint scanners will be connected "to all PCs and laptops, and will be used by staff in office environments and for remote access by mobile users for connection to Centrelink's computing environment".
However, according to the agency's annual report, it only has 25,448 employees - 5000 people less than the proposed number of scanners to be deployed.
The RFT does not indicate why Centrelink needs so many extra scanners, raising serious questions as to what their intended purpose may be.
The office of Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Kaye Patterson also declined to comment, insisting the matter resides entirely with Senator Hockey because it involves "service delivery".
Unions claim the government is also mushrooming Centrelink employees over the matter.
Commonwealth Public Sector Union (CPSU) national president Mark Gepp said "we are completely in the dark" and no steps had been taken by management to brief workers.
Gepp said it was highly unlikely Centrelink was about to employ thousands of extra staff to absorb the new machines.
Should the technology be extended to Centrelink clients, Gepp said staff had every right to be informed because it would significantly impact their workplace.
The CPSU has written to the CEO of Centrelink seeking an urgent briefing and is yet to receive a response.
Privacy advocates are also cool on Centrelink's big foray into biometrics, warning such moves come with serious risks.
Network engineer and board member of electronic privacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia Dale Clapperton welcomed Centrelink's stronger focus on bolting down access to files and documents, but warned the technology was flawed.
"Fingerprint reading is one of the more unreliable forms of biometrics. [It has been proven in tests] most fingerprint readers can be fooled by ordinary people with ordinary equipment," Clapperton said.
He questioned the effectiveness of fingerprinting clients to crack down on fraud because it merely reinforced an already flawed set of paper checks.
"If Centrelink is being fooled by people presenting fake birth certificates or documents for someone that has died, how is finger scanning going to help?" he asked.
Union opposes scanning
Finance Sector Union national spokesperson Rod Masson said if a system of fingerprint scanning is introduced in banks and financial institutions it will negate contracts already in place. He said workers have signed and entered contracts stating they understand their responsibility regarding the handling of confidential data. Fingerprint scanners, he said, will abuse that trust.
"The vast majority of finance sector workers and Centrelink staff are honest trustworthy people not seeking to breach any kind of confidentiality," Masson said
"The general concern would be how to maintain the privacy of the individual worker - I would hate to think records bearing fingerprints may somehow go awry or get missed."
When it comes to trust, Masson said, the difference between being overly suspicious and putting in place systems to manage performance are subtle and often misunderstood.
He said it is a balancing act to ensure management isn't over-zealous.
"Look at call centres or back office operations where there is a high level of people monitoring to meet workload targets; supervisors can become over efficient when it comes to implementing technology," Masson said.
- with Michael Crawford