Stills from CCTV footage shot anywhere in Australia could soon be entered into a national “hub” to scan faces to be matched against driver’s licence and passport photos as part of a government plan to make it easier for law enforcement to track the public.
The Australian government is aiming to pool state and territory facial recognition technologies so that stills from CCTV footage taken around the country could be used to identify people of interest to the Australian Federal Police, spy agencies, Customs and Border Protection and other law enforcement agencies.
In May, attorneys-general and police ministers from across the country agreed to explore how law enforcement agencies could “share and match facial images” used on ID documents such as passports, visas and driver’s licences. Most state or territory agencies have some form of facial recognition technology in place today, but there is no easy, automated way for agencies across state borders or federally to share the data.
The Attorney-General’s Department has allocated $12.6 million in funding for the implementation and operation of the hub, and an additional $5.8 million to assist the states and territories to connect to the hub. According to the department there are over 100 million facial images held by government agencies that are responsible for issuing ID documents.
Attorney-General’s Department deputy secretary for national security, Katherine Jones, told the Senate estimates hearing that the plan was to establish a “hub” for agencies collecting this data to be able to share and compare that data with other agencies. At the time, Jones claimed that the hub would not be collecting new data, just using the data already collected by the agencies.
“The hub is essentially — and I will have to be careful in terms of my technical capacity to explain the mechanics of it — a connecting. It is an ability to connect in real time to check the identities. It is not a database as such where these identities will be held. The identities are still in the holdings of the agencies that provide them,” she said.
Agencies that will have access to the service, initially, will be the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Defence and the Attorney-General’s Department. State agencies will be able to participate, but the state governments will need to first consider what technical and legislative changes are needed to bring in the driver’s licence databases. This is expected to be decided by the Council of Australian Governments transport and infrastructure council in a meeting in November.
“It will require amendment of state and territory legislation, because obviously their legislation covers the issuing of their identity facial biometric material, whether it is driver’s licences or anything else,” Jones said in May.
“I think our current assessment is in terms of the Commonwealth. We may not have to make any legislative provision for it, because it relates to material that is already collected under legislative provision, say, the Passports Act. Any legal requirements about the use of that facial biometric material will be covered in that original act, including any privacy limitations related to that.”
The government wants it for much more than simple identification based on existing government documents, however. In response to a question on notice from the hearing, the department confirmed this week that the system would have the scope to be able to scan CCTV images.
“The capability is designed to share and match ‘still’ photographs and images only. There will be scope for participating agencies to enrol CCTV images or ‘stills’ in the capability for the purposes of identification or verification. However there will be no capacity to directly link a CCTV feed or licence plate camera to the capability for such purposes,” the department stated.
State governments are already exploring using CCTV facial recognition technology, with South Australia Police going to tender in January this year for software to identify suspects based on still images in existing police databases, and software with the ability to tap into CCTV footage taken by governments, councils and private cameras in South Australia.
Australia is also relatively late to the game in national facial recognition databases. The Department of Homeland Security in the United States has reportedly invested hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to local and state governments to build databases on their behalf. Although, at least in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, the technology did not prove useful.
The Australian federal “hub” is expected to be able to be able to compare two images to see if the faces match by mid-2016, and full functionality to conduct facial searches “will be implemented in a phased approach over time.”
While all government agencies that are part of the system will have access to the data, the federal government is arguing that a hub (as opposed to a centralised database) minimises the impact on privacy because the data is not all hosted in the one location. The design and operation of the hub will also be subject to a privacy impact assessment in consultation with federal and state privacy commissioners.
Earlier this month, the government passed an amendment to the Migration Act that aims to consolidate the collection of personal data into a broad discretionary power to collect data on Australian citizens and non-citizens at the border. This data will likely feed into the new hub.