Australian Foreign Affairs seeks automated process for applying facial biometrics

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has admitted shortcomings in the way it processes requests to use its biometric matching service to verify individual’s identities for other government agencies, ZDNet reports.

A submission (PDF) to the Inquiry into the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2018 says that the service is provided manually based on ad hoc requests, which in practice are not rejected as long as a reason is given, a facial image is attached, the sender asserts responsibility for the verification within the requesting agency, and the request is sent from an official Australian Commonwealth, State or Territory government email address.

“The department does not have the specialist law enforcement expertise needed to assess the merits of the requests it receives, and does not seek information on this from other agencies,” the department says in the submission. “As such, its decisions about whether to disclose personal information to these agencies are, in a sense, mechanistic, based on whether requests satisfy simple business rules.”

DFAT further says it is only able to carry out the process in this way because of the low number of requests received, which it estimates to be a few hundred per year. The department has no log or audit trail, however, from which to produce exact statistics, according to the submission.

Deploying an automated system would hold several advantages, DFAT says, including improved speed and consistency, and elimination of any potential for bias. It also says the face verification service (FVS), face identification service (FIS), and passport processing systems would not infringe individuals’ rights because they are designed to simply confirm or fail to confirm their identity, rather than to reject their identity claim, which would require a review process. The department deferred to a judgement from the Department of Home Affairs that adequate privacy safeguards are built into the system.

Automation could also enable DFAT to add FVS functionality to its passport processing software to perform routine biometric checks against Australian drivers’ license images.

The “Identity-matching Services Bill 2018” and related legislation under consideration mandates Home Affairs to operate a system for sharing information between departments.

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