Privacy, security fears over Centrelink facial recognition expansion

Font Size:

Privacy campaigners are criticising the expansion of facial verification technology in government services such as Medicare and Centrelink.

The Morrison government is spending $256 million on upgrading its opt-in digital identification system, to simplify and reduce the cost of citizen interactions with government agencies. It could be used to file bankruptcy applications, enrol to vote, apply for welfare payments and possibly to register votes. Up to 1.6 million Australians use facial recognition to access 70 different government services.

But Australian Privacy Foundation co-director and Deakin University senior lecturer Monique Mann told The New Daily she wants an Australian charter of human rights rather than more surveillance of citizens.

“I think it’s really concerning that the Australian government is expanding its use of facial recognition technology in government systems and services at a time when we’re the only Western democracy without any constitutional or legislated human rights protections at the federal level,” Dr Mann said.

“I would suggest that the $250 million that they’re using to upgrade facial recognition technology in the welfare context, under these arguments of preventing welfare fraud or identity fraud, would be better spent on supporting those welfare recipients.”

Two pieces of 2018 legislation aimed to set up a national database of images obtained through facial recognition technology and other forms of identification such as driver’s licences and passports. This information was to be shared between government agencies and, in some cases, private organisations like telecommunication companies and banks.

Last year, the government-controlled Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) called for significant changes to the legislation to ensure stronger privacy protections in proposed facial verification technology.

The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) opposed the bills, saying it was “dangerously overbroad, and could dramatically alter the freedom of ordinary people going about their daily lives”.

Emily Howie, a legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said last year the proposed laws were “something you’d expect in an authoritarian state”.

“The facial recognition scheme effectively hands control of powerful new forms of surveillance to the Home Affairs department with virtual carte blanche to collect and use some of our most sensitive personal data. 

“The laws are a recipe for disaster, they put at risk everyone’s privacy and contain no meaningful safeguards. This law is sloppy, it’s dangerous, and it has no place in a democracy.” 

The HRLC submission to the legislative process said the bills did not provide a legal basis for use of identity matching services and few safeguards for individuals whose information would be ‘vacuumed’ into databases.

“The bill can be characterised as providing authorities with extraordinarily broad capabilities to use facial recognition technology without any apparent regard for the civil liberties of all of us who will be affected.” 

Dr Mann pointed out the government’s poor record on welfare technology, including the infamous and ongoing Robo-debt controversy, which led to the government repaying $721 million to 370,000 people.

Writing for The Conversation, Associate Professor Rob Nicholls, director of the University of New South Wales Business School Cybersecurity and Data Governance Research Network, said accounting firm Deloitte was awarded a $9.5 million contract in March to develop a platform to replace the myGov portal.

According to reports, this contract’s value has increased to $28 million.

“A threefold increase in budget in six months suggests the proposed funding of $256.6 million may not be enough.”

He’s also concerned that cybersecurity researchers from the Australian National University and Melbourne University have identified a “relatively simple phishing method by which the ATO’s myGovID login system can be compromised”.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) cited research suggesting software used in facial imagery systems had higher error rates for women and people from particular ethnic groups.

The AHRC is running the Human Rights and Technology Project to “advance human rights protection in the context of unprecedented technological change”. It is investigating how law, policy, incentives, and other measures can promote and protect human rights in respect of new and emerging technologies. 

Professor Mark Andrejevic, an expert in online monitoring and data mining at Monash University, told The New Daily the “concerted governmental push towards using biometrics for identification” raises urgent concerns about privacy, security, and biased algorithms.

“There’s been a demonstrated bias based on skin tones, and that means that certain groups may be more likely to find that the technology doesn’t work accurately for them,” Prof. Andrejevic explained.

“That would constitute a potential barrier across different societal groups.”

He is also concerned that vulnerable Australians could face a technological hurdle that cuts them off from essentials services.

“It’s not clear that folks who need to access these services would have access to the necessary technology. So that could create some barriers to entry if this becomes a requirement to access services. It could pose a technological hurdle,” he said.

“It’s important to make sure that information is secure and safe, and the more services that access it, the more issues arise around the security of the database,” Prof. Andrejevic said.

“I do think we want to think quite carefully as a society about which applications are worth the potential risks of the collection of biometric information.”

Where do you stand on the issue of facial recognition? Is it a welcome advance or one to be wary of?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Join YourLifeChoices today
and get this free eBook!

By joining YourLifeChoices you consent that you have read and agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy


Online privacy protection more important than ever

More Aussies over 65yrs are taking to the internet - but some are taking risks in the process.

Online privacy: we say we care but most do nothing to protect it

The privacy paradox: we claim we care about our data, so why don't our actions match?

Compensation sought after Optus allows huge privacy breach

Compensation sought after Optus publishes personal details of 50,000 customers in massive privacy

Written by Will Brodie


Total Comments: 84
  1. 0

    If you have nothing to hide, this new method helps protect everyone.

    • 0

      Sounds to me like the often quoted

      “If you don’s speed why worry about all the speed cameras”

    • 0

      Panos, if the cameras are supposed to stop speeding, why do they issue millions of $ in fines. Obviously they don’t work.

    • 0

      Yes they do for the govt $$$$

    • 0

      Not much new in that – my European passport has that imbedded since 2014 – you have to go to a passport office to get it done, not a photo in the post office. It will be for everyone in future not just welfare recipients. Never had a problem with it myself, cannot get any real money out of your account without providing ID these days. One day we’ll get a chip in our ear when we are born – only a matter of time.

    • 0

      I was thinking the very same thing, Suddha.

    • 0

      Suddha, I remember some years ago a friend in her 40s, said the same thing, if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide. I asked her what she would do if she was told you can’t smoke in the clubs anymore. She said, “ But that’s not against the law”
      Ah, I said, but suppose that became the law.

    • 0

      Makes me mad when people say

      ‘If you have nothing to hide, this new method helps protect everyone.’

      Does that mean that you leave your doors/windows/curtains open and have all your private papers etc out for ALL to see???

      I also have nothing to hide but I do enjoy privacy

  2. 0

    Don’t they have enough of our personal information already? This is another step towards big brother. Our children and grandchildren will have no freedom at all. It only takes a corrupt leader to step in and we could finish up with another Nazi dictator.

    • 0

      Yes Nan Norma,
      My thoughts also especially if we become a Republic and wind up with a corrupt leader as so many Republics had/have.

    • 0

      You are right there Nan Norma. Not only your points but also the risk of the computer system being hacked and all our data ending up in the wrong hands. Then we look at the Robo system they stuffed up plus the NBN internet system that has taken us backwards in internet comparisons.
      I wouldn’t trust this government when they have still not got a way of bringing stranded Aussies to get home. And they want our faces on their system.

    • 0

      we have all of that now.

    • 0

      As I have said before in this portal, you just have to look at European history in 1930’s to see all of the parallels.
      Very Scary. Fascism? Very close.
      I don’t think having a foreign queen or king as our head of state would help much. It would be more difficult to remove a poor leader, if the monarch of some other country decided not.

  3. 0

    Yep preparing for China to invade and take over, why is it not surprising

  4. 0

    fORGET IT! I have given up enough of my identity! If they want this they can come to my front door personally to get the info. Soon “they” will want to know what toothpaste I use….then again….they probably already know. WHAT A WASTE OF TECHNOLOGY….just like everything else they have waisted.

    • 0

      Yes, if you use a credit card or a loyalty card or shop at stores gathering data, the powers that be know what you buy, how often you buy it and how frequently you re-buy. Some stores even have technology that lets them know how long you looked at a product or group of products before you made the decision to buy whatever product you bought.

  5. 0

    This government has an incredible track record of introducing new technology that is mind boggling. Monty Python have been well outdone with the LNP’s almost comical, if it wasn’t for the cost, stuff ups.
    This proposal should not be allowed to proceed as it is wide open to malfunction.

    • 0

      Yes, unaccountable politicians and public servants buy trains that don’t fit our stations and tunnels, ferries that won’t fit under bridges, light rail that doesn’t work, and other major infrastructure which ends up costing a fortune to remedy.

    • 0

      You guys fall in as soon as the Govt cuts your funds off. Has always been like that – driver’s licence requires it. Any of you remember when the licence did not have a photo? People did not want it but it arrived any way. Progress!!??

    • 0

      I have fun at my local gym who uses facial recognition to get in the place. If the sun is at a certain angle it won’t recognise you, if the wind blows and the shadows behind you move it wont recognise you. I changed my glasses frame recently and the manager had to let me in because the stupid device didn’t recognise me. In fact I have seen people not join up because of this system they have in place.

  6. 0

    Anything that helps against fraud and crime is worth the investment.Only those with something to hide would be against this.

    • 0

      Perhaps – and I hope you’re right Young, but that kind of thinking also brought the Nazis to power.

    • 0

      What about those of us who don’t have the latest & greatest mobile phones, or those who don’t have them at all. I, for one, refuse to have apps on my phone that could track everything that I do. I don’t want to get a ‘brick’ 5″ screen just to keep the ‘powers that be’ happy – they’re too big for me to hold and use.

    • 0

      Ductape, I would suggest you read some history. There was no such thing as facial regognition back in the Nazi era.

      There were a lot of reasons as to why the Nazis became popular. Some of them, like raising pensions and increased employment sound eerily similar to stuff we read here on YLC every day. But some of the other reasons like German superiority, militarism, and anti-semitism are of course, complete anathema to us and so they should be.

      We lose umpteen billions of dollars every year to fraud in this country. That is money that could be spent on schools, hospitals, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, age care, and pensions. Everything in fact that YLC subscribers bleat about here every day. Yet you want no part of finding ways to try and fix the problem. Yes there are concerns about this, but the current methods don’t work, and we need to try something different.

    • 0

      Lets start with politicians they cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions each year.
      Great to have leaders leading by example.

    • 0

      SuziJ, the fact you have a mobile phone at all, plus you are on the internet means you are already ‘tracked’. It is naive to think otherwise.

    • 0

      No. You don’t seem to realize that this is the thin edge of the wedge. Once this is entrenched within our society, everything that we do outside our homes is subject to the possibility of being recorded and analyzed, and then stored away. No matter how secure that storage is, it can be accessed, legally or illegally. To get that data into a computer, anywhere, it requires Internet access, and no matter how good the protection, there will be people who can break into it, and gain information about anyone. This business about surveillance is dangerous, despite the claims made by the government. It’s not about having anything to hide, it’s about our basic right to have some privacy in our lives, and to not have everything that we do outside our homes subject to being monitored, every second of everyday. That is where this draconian idea is ultimately heading. Regardless of what you think, this is Fascism at its worst.

    • 0

      I agree DanielTech, well said. You can always turn off your internet and your data on your phone, plus the location on your phone, but will we have this control in the future if we are being recorded everywhere we go, you can see how China uses it against their people.

  7. 0

    That’s easy to get around..just wear a mask!

  8. 0

    Get used to it. The whole world will do it sooner or later. The problem we have is that there is so much fraud in society today. Without the crooks it wouldn’t be necessary. Don’t blame governments, blame the people who want to play by their illegal rules.

  9. 0

    “dangerously overbroad, and could dramatically alter the freedom of ordinary people going about their daily lives”.

    Quite correct…..If anyone thinks this technology won’t be widely used to broaden even further the scope of government surveillance over every single one of its citizens, then they must have rocks in their head.

    One never knows where this kind of thing will eventually lead, but it won’t be good and thankfully, when we find out, I should already be dead… least I hope to be!

  10. 0

    Just look of the China model. That is what our leaders are heading towards. Photo recognition leads to Total control of every person and “ appropriate” punishments if you step out of line. Don’t think it isn’t leading towards this. That is why Dan Andrews lockdown laws are so insidious.Control!

Load More Comments



continue reading


Five smart moves for empty nesters

So, the kids have moved out, your home is finally yours again and you have ascended to the rank of...


Why you turn down the radio when you're trying to park your car?

When you're looking for a destination, you might need to cut down the volume. Shutterstock Simon Lilburn, University of Melbourne...


Why we can expect smarter healthcare in 2021 and other tech trends

With last year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and much the same expected for 2021, it is unsurprising that healthcare...

Mental Health

Drug trial offers rare hope on Alzheimer's disease

There is finally a glimmer of hope in the fight against Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, which affects...


How the pandemic has turbocharged the pet care industry

Pet care is a big business, and the pandemic has made it bigger. An Animal Medicines Australia report says Australians...

Travel News

Australian government divided on lifting overseas travel ban

The federal government is divided about when international air travel will recommence for Australians, as consumers signal their intent to...


Dietitian reveals the breakfast swaps worth making

If you're looking to live a healthier lifestyle, breakfast is a good place to start. It's the first meal of...

Finance News

COVID driving more older Australians into poverty

Many of us who endured lockdowns in Australia are familiar with the surge in energy bills at home. But for...