Australian startups want access to facial biometrics database

The Australian government’s initiative to allow law enforcement agencies to access facial recognition images stored on a national database has raised privacy and state surveillance concerns.

However, the executive of E4 Australia is calling on the government to take the measure one step further by allowing the private sector to access the biometric images, according to a report by Business Insider.

Earlier this month, the federal government signed an agreement with its state and territory counterparts to provide law enforcement agencies with real-time access to the country’s face biometric database, which contains millions of people’s images from documents like drivers’ licenses, passports and visa applications.

“I would openly encourage that private, vetted businesses have controlled access to the source facial images inherent in these government-issued documents through a secure gateway,” said Stuart Hosford, E4 Australia managing director. “For us, we see facial recognition as a clear and key component of managing the evolving threat of fraud and terrorism funding in the world in which we now live in.”

Hosford said a well-executed counterfeit passport could easily fool human inspectors, however, a real-time verification of facial images would help prevent this fraud and there was no reason why the private sector should be barred from such a capability.

“In some cases, [a forgery] would not be flagged with a biometric scan and/or an electronic document check through the Document Verification Service provided by the Attorney General,” he said.

Hosford believes there is no reason why the private sector shouldn’t also have access to this capability, as they should have the “opportunity to contribute to facilitate this very positive change if we are able to do so.”

E4 currently provides virtual “verification of identity” services to mortgage broker marketplace HashChing, which allows customers to prove their identity electronically when submitting a new loan application.

“Elderly people, in particular, like facial recognition technology because it is so convenient and it is something they can easily understand,” David Birch, director of Consult Hyperion, said. “This is something we need to build on, because all our big banking reforms – such as open banking and instant payments – cannot effectively take place without a shared and trusted digital identity solution.”

Birch echoed Hosford’s sentiments about a centralized identification database having the potential to shape the future of fintech and banking in a positive manner.

“We can’t continue to have the situation where people need their own individual banking passcodes from individual institutions,” Birch said. “We need a shared digital identity solution and biometrics will be a huge part of this.”

Verifier CEO Lisa Schutz said it may be difficult to convince Australians that a facial biometrics database is a good idea.

“Some cultures can handle more centralized control of information, but I suspect that Australians are at the other end of the spectrum,” Schutz said. “It’s not just the breach risk of encouraging massive honeypots of individual-level data that I struggle with. I also think we need to reflect on community values when we consider uses for data of any kind.”

Since biometric identity cannot be “reset” like passwords or credit card numbers when they are compromised, Schutz said the country needs “to be crystal clear on when facial recognition might be needed, for instance criminal investigations, versus what is scope creep — for instance, using facial recognition to substitute for non-biometric digital identity systems.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull refuted privacy concerns, citing that there is a large amount of personal information, such as photos, publically available through social media.

“I don’t know if you’ve checked your Facebook page lately, but people put an enormous amount of their own data up in the public domain already — I mean there has never been more data on citizens than there is today,” Turnbull said. “We have very, very rigorous privacy protections in terms of the use of government data and government-held biometric data.”

Schutz believes that Australia could balance civil liberties concerns with security issues to develop a solution that could be beneficial for everyone in the country.

“Finding solutions which reflect our culture and values will lead us towards a major export opportunity,” she said. “Why wouldn’t communities around the world who share our values and sentiments want to leverage the federated, high-integrity data sharing framework that we are more than capable of developing?”

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