It was welcome news this week that Federal Parliament’s Joint Intelligence Committee has sent the proposal for a National Facial Recognition Scheme back for fundamental redrafting.

In an unusual move described as the first occasion since 2002 the Coalition and Opposition members of the Committee voted on Thursday, 24 October 2019 to send the Bill back for redrafting to ensure that there were proper accountability and privacy mechanisms put in place in respect of the Scheme.

Opponents of the Bill which included the Law Council of Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, Digital Rights Australia and the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties submitted to the Committee that expanding identity matching could represent a gross overreach into the privacy of everyday Australians.

Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, Chair of the Committee, said that “the Committee acknowledges the (privacy and accountability) concerns and believes that while the Bill’s explanatory memorandum sets out governance arrangements such as exist in contemplated agreements and access policy, they are not adequately set out in the current bill”.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said that the unusual bipartisan rejection of the Bill was on the basis of a lack of adequate safe guards.

One of the safeguards proposed was a Biometrics Commissioner.  Such a body exists in the UK and has since 2012 where it was established under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2010 (UK).  The UK Biometrics Commissioner is independent of government and it provides independent oversight in respect of data similar to the proposed Australian facial recognition database in the UK.

The Department of Home Affairs in its submission to the Federal Committee opposed the creation of a Biometrics Commissioner.

The background to the Bill is that in late 2017 the Federal Coalition government then under Malcolm Turnbull announced plans to incorporate State and Territory Government drivers’ licence photos in a large facial recognition database to be used by a range of agencies including law enforcement and other government departments.

The Human Rights Law Centre submission to the Committee was to the effect that “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 the most sensitive personal data.  The laws are a recipe for disaster and they put at risk everyone’s privacy and contain no meaningful safe guards” the Centre’s submission to the Committee stated.

All State and Territory drivers’ licences will be scanned into a Federal database managed by the Department of Home Affairs whose Minister Peter Dutton is notoriously unsympathetic to civil liberties and privacy concerns that are constantly expressed in relation to the operation of his portfolio.

The Home Affairs opposition to the safeguards and accountability mechanisms which were agreed to in the bipartisan call by the Committee to rewrite the legislation is another indication that Home Affairs want great power without adequate controls.