Centrelink facial ID fears grow

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?

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