The Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan has announced a Federal Government Face Verification Service (FVS), the first step in the move to a national biometric image database – and the beginning of the end to concept of anonymity.
The FVS is now operational, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Federal Police now having access to citizenship images held by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Passport, visa and driver licence photos will be added over time, with access expanded to other government agencies. By next year it will be expanded so that random facial images (a person crossing the street against a red light, for instance) can be matched to the government facial image records.
The government insists this is not a new database but merely a ‘secure means of sharing images between existing agency systems’. (So a virtual new database). Minister Keenan said the ability to match a person’s photo against an image on one of their government records, to verify their identity and to share these images between agencies, will strengthen identity checking processes.
The Attorney-General’s Department has previously said there are currently more than 100 million facial images held by agencies that issue identity documents, according to a recent story in ITNews. While the system is intended to share still and not moving images, stills from licence plate cameras and CCTV could also be be used, according to the Attorney-General’s Department.
Privacy advocates and the ACT Attorney-General, Simon Corbell are concerned the new system gives police ‘unprecedented and extraordinary’ access to sensitive data without proper safeguards.
Simon Corbell said there were no restrictions on the federal government changing the laws so the data can be accessed by commercial entities.
“Of particular concern is the prospect that this data could be accessed by the private sector in the future, and potentially for a broad range of matters beyond the most serious of criminal matters. As it stands, such changes could be made without reference to any parliamentary oversight,’ he said.
‘In this context, it is the ACT’s view that wholesale population level comparison of facial images goes well beyond what is reasonable and proportionate in a free and democratic society.’
-What this move to a central government image database means for a photo retailer’s passport photography business is unclear. We reported in April that Australia Post’s 33-year sole agency for Passport Application Lodgement Services (PALS) ends in July next year, with tenders invited for a passport application system. There has been no update since that report.