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Balancing act for biometric privacy and security in Australian schools and elsewhere

Balancing act for biometric privacy and security in Australian schools and elsewhere

Outdated privacy laws are exposing Australian residents to improper collection and use of biometric data, claims University of Sydney Law School professor Kimberlee Weatherall, during a recent ACS Think Tank session.

According to Weatherall, as quoted by ACS Information Age, the 1988 Privacy Act was created to protect individuals’ data. Still, the law “was never designed to address the fundamental right to privacy, which is broader than just data protection.”

Conversely, the legal expert adds that the Australian government is trying to deal with face biometric technologies using legislation not designed for that purpose.

Instead, Weatherall believes the capture of facial recognition, fingerprint and other biometric data should be addressed as part of the government’s ongoing Privacy Act review.

The professor explains that some big tech firms have realized this, including IBM, which mostly pulled out of the biometric market in 2020.

The lack of specific regulation of biometric data also impacts people’s security during data breaches, adds Kavitha Kewal, assistant secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Identity and Biometrics Policy and Futures branch, speaking at the ACS event.

According to Kewal, while biometrics “is a great tool for national security and law enforcement purposes […] it needs to come with the appropriate legislation on oversight, transparency, and controls.”

Sydney high school introduces fingerprint biometrics

Meanwhile, biometric technologies are coming under scrutiny in Australian schools following an investigation by The Conversation. A team of Sydney-based academics have considered the case of a Sydney high school which sought to capture fingerprint biometrics of students to prevent acts of vandalism in the facility’s toilets.

Students would have to register and then scan their fingerprint (or swipe card if they opted out of biometrics) when entering and leaving the toilets.

After criticism by some parents and digital rights advocates, the biometrics school plans were temporarily halted while the school consulted the community.

The academics writing in The Conversation believe Australia generally needs to catch up in understanding the short and long-term repercussions of biometrics in schools.

To do so, the country should provide additional community education about different biometric technologies and create a public register. The latter would enable more transparency about where technologies are being used, introduced and refused.

The authors propose ten questions that parents should ask their children’s schools around biometrics and edtech, such as what would happen if their child opted out.

In other news, the Australian government is increasingly using biometrics to monitor detainees.

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