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Identity matching bills threaten our rights

Rights and Freedoms

Proposed identity matching laws threaten the privacy of Australians and pose a high risk to other human rights, Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow today told a Parliamentary Joint Committee.

Commissioner Santow said the bills should not be made law because they are too broadly worded, give too much discretionary power to individuals, and create opportunities for identity theft.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on Thursday heard submissions on the Identity Services Bill 2018 and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill 2018 in Melbourne.

The Australian Human Rights Commission supports the objectives of the bills - to enhance national security, combat crime and increase service delivery opportunities –  but does not believe they can achieve those aims, Commissioner Santow said.

“They are drafted too broadly, with inadequate safeguards, and that carries a high risk of violating the human rights of ordinary Australians,” Commissioner Santow told the Joint Committee.  “That risk is most obvious in the area of privacy but it could also lead to discrimination and infringe other rights.” 

Commissioner Santow said issues with the bills fell within four broad categories: a lack of proportionality, the possibility for their usage to continually broaden, a lack of democratic oversight, and the risk of fraud and other unintended consequences.

“The bills are unprecedented in impacting on Australians’ privacy,” he told the Joint Committee.  “The identity bill provides the legal infrastructure to enable mass surveillance using facial recognition technology.  That sort of mass surveillance has never been possible in Australia. 

“Another example is that in its submission, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade noted that it currently processes a few hundred identity matching requests each year but it anticipates that if these bills are passed it will process a few thousand each day, which is a massive increase.”

If the bills were passed in their current form, the personal information of innocent people would end up being used by law enforcement, Commissioner Santow told the Joint Committee. “The way the face identification service will work, innocent people almost certainly will appear as suspects in criminal investigations with all of the consequences that flow from that,” he said.

Commissioner Santow also said the bills allowed “use or function creep.”  “The problem with the bill is that some of the permitted purposes for sharing personal information are so broad, that they could give especially law enforcement and intelligence bodies almost unrestricted power to share personal data,” he said.

“The fact that the bills have been drafted very broadly gives necessarily a high level of discretion not to parliament but especially to the departmental secretary and the minister.

Storing large groups of biometric data in the one place heightened the risk of identity theft, Commissioner Santow said.  “A centralised system of personal information can create a so called ‘honeypot’ of biometric data that, if compromised, massively increases the risk of identity theft.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s written submission to the Joint Committee is available on the Inquiry’s website

Commissioner Santow is leading a major Australian Human Rights Commission project examining the human rights implications of technology. More information about the Human Rights and Technology project is available here

Photo: US Army / Wikimedia Commons.