State and territory leaders have agreed with federal government plans to establish a national facial biometric matching capability, which will bring together passport, visa, citizenship and driver licence images into a single database.
At a special meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on counter-terrorism, government heads agreed to the "21st Century tool", which has been slammed by privacy groups.
In a communique issued after the meeting this morning, the council said the new capability would protect Australians “by making it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to identify people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity, and prevent the use of fake or stolen identities which is a key enabler of terrorism and other serious crime”.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the database would allow security services to track terrorist suspects in real time.
“Police have been using, for many years, photo IDs on licences and on passports to enable identities to be verified but it has been operating and – I think, as you know – in a rather clunky, old-fashioned manual way,” he said after the meeting.
“By agreeing to bring this together into the one database, into a means of operating together in real-time, it will enable our police, our security services to give an even better level of protection by being able to identify persons of concern, people who are suspected of terrorist offences or terrorist plots in real-time. It is a very important 21st century tool."
The leaders signed an Intergovernmental Agreement on Identity Matching Services, which means agencies in all jurisdictions will be able to use new face matching, document verification and identity data sharing services.
Agencies will access the services via a web-based hub operated and paid for by the Commonwealth, with contributions from each state and territory.
The agreement states that the services will “help promote privacy by strengthening the integrity and security of Australia’s identity infrastructure”.
The scope of the agreement includes “providing authorised private sector organisations with access” to some of the services.
The estimated cost of establishing and operating the central technical infrastructure of the National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution is $21 million over four years. This includes $14 million in initial establishment costs.
Civil liberties group Electronic Frontiers Australia yesterday spoke out against the database.
“This is yet another proposal that will enable warrantless surveillance of the entire population, without either a clear cost justification or clear evidence that facial recognition is capable of prospectively preventing terrorism, or other serious crimes, thereby continuing the theme of treating all citizens as suspects,” said the group’s executive officer Jon Lawrence.
At a press conference yesterday, Turnbull said the database could be used to boost security in locations such as airports and “absolutely could be” used in places such as malls. The PM gave the example of identifying an individual suspected of being involved in “terrorist activities” when he or she walks into an airport or a sporting stadium.
The COAG agreed on a number of other proposals, including extending the period terrorism suspects can be detained without charge to 14 days.