Victoria sends identity data to national facial recognition system to stay ‘ahead of the pack’


The Victorian government is uploading data from driver licenses to the federal government’s National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution but will only allow it to be accessed by its own agencies, for now.

The information includes the photographs, dates of birth, licence numbers and gender of licensees, but no information about traffic infringements or demerit points. There will be three months of “testing and checking” next but license-holders cannot opt out of having their data join the system. They already agreed to this when they applied for a new license or a renewal, according to the Victorian government’s explanatory website.

The state government is not providing Victoria’s facial recognition data to federal or interstate agencies until it is “satisfied” with the proposed Identity-matching Services Bill that is before federal parliament, according to a joint statement from Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings and Minister for Roads Jaala Pulford.

Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton, who fears encroachment on civil liberties, welcomed the caution. “As the Australian Privacy Foundation and FutureWise have already pointed out in their submission in relation to the national Identity-matching Services Bill, there are serious human rights and regulatory shortcomings in Australia’s biometric information collection and the proposed sharing regime,” he said.

The proposed federal legislation will provide legal authority for the Department of Home Affairs to collect, use and disclose identity information so it can “operate the technical systems that support the face matching services”, according to a departmental web page containing the key policies, inter-government agreements and privacy impact assessments related to the project.

Home Affairs will host a “national database of driver licence images” on behalf of states and territories. All jurisdictions agreed to build the system through the Council of Australian Governments in late 2017 but its development is proceeding slowly. The Victorian and Tasmanian governments are the first to provide the data and others are expected to follow suit over the next two years.

What is the point?

“This technology will help keep government agencies ahead of the pack when it comes to combating identity fraud, which is one of the most common and costly crimes facing our state,” Jennings claimed. “We are doing this as part of a national agreement, while ensuring the privacy of Victorians is not compromised.”

Estimates of the cost of identity crime vary; the Victorian Special Minister of State puts it at about $2.2 billion per year and says it affects 25% of the Australian community.

The main specific benefit of facial recognition, according to Pulford and Jennings, is it will help VicRoads and the police catch people using fake or duplicated licenses.

“This will make it harder for people to conceal their true identities and use multiple licences to avoid traffic fines, demerit points or licence cancellations,” said Pulford. “This will greatly assist in removing unauthorised and dangerous drivers from our roads.”

Once in place, the state government says the national system will also mean “everyone can easily and securely verify their identity” and it will be easier to find people who have gone missing.

Jennings and Pulford complain that “current image-based identification methods can be cumbersome, with sharing between agencies sometimes taking days or even longer to process” and they say use of the national facial recognition system by Victorian agencies will be “monitored” to protect individual privacy.

System ‘cannot be used mass surveillance’

Governments are keenly aware that no matter how the system is designed or how they justify it, the idea is concerning or frightening to a lot of people.

“The NDLFRS cannot be used for mass surveillance,” says the Victorian government’s website.

“Once implemented, approved Victorian Government agencies can use advanced face matching technology to review specific photographs. The system identifies distinctive facial characteristics, which can then be compared against driver licence images. This technology is already in use in Australia for passport and immigration purposes.”

The joint initiative has been branded “IDMatch” and now has its own website that spruiks services for businesses and tries to reassure sceptics they have nothing to fear from cyber attacks, data breaches or mission-creep.

The “mass surveillance” issue tops an interesting list of answers to frequently asked questions on the IDMatch site, which says it cannot do “real-time monitoring or live facial recognition of people in public places” because it is “deliberately designed not to accept live video feeds, such as CCTV”.

The new Facial Verification Service (FVS) can only confirm a person is who they claim to be, but some government bodies will be able to identify unknown people using the Face Identification Service (FIS).

“A trained human operator must submit an image for every Face Identification Service matching request. Only a specified list of law enforcement, anti-corruption and security agencies may use our services to identify unknown people. It is therefore not possible for private sector organisations (such as operators of stadiums) or local government authorities to use our services to scan a crowd to identify people.”

Mostly, people will knowingly and willingly have their identity verified using the FVS and if they don’t want to, an alternative will be available, but IDMatch will also disclose personal information without consent to law enforcement or security agencies when legally authorised.

Eventually the FVS will become available to a large range of organisations, much like the current Document Verification Service, as long as their access is “reasonable, necessary and proportionate to their functions or activities” — it will be up to Home Affairs to make that call.

“If access is granted, organisations must then enter into agreements with the government agencies that issue your identity documents in order to get access to that information through one (or more) of the Identity Matching Services.”

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