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Australia’s biometric, ID verification systems have been operating illegally for 4 years

Australia’s biometric, ID verification systems have been operating illegally for 4 years

A rather significant legal oversight means that hundreds of millions of ID document and biometrics checks processed through the government of Australia’s identity verification services may have been conducted illegally, according to an article in the Guardian.

As the government of Anthony Albanese pushes for a quick deal on legislation governing the ID verification service, political opponents are pointing out that the service has operated for the last four years without a legal framework to govern the link between state ID systems and third party firms conducting ID checks. Moreover, the pending legislation now under review in the Senate was abandoned by the previous government in 2019 in response to concerns about adequate privacy safeguards, particularly around facial recognition. At that time, the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security recommended that the proposal for an ID verification scheme be redrafted.

Critics say the present push to expedite legislation is more about cleaning up the government’s big illegal oopsie and avoiding litigation than about passing solid laws that have undergone necessary parliamentary scrutiny. Previous drafts allowed for both one-to-one face biometrics using selfie-to-photo document matching, and, for law enforcement, one-to-many searches conducted against a database of images. The current version softens that, but minimally: one-to-many search can only be used by authorities that need to search for people who are either undercover or in witness protection, so that previous identity records can be scrubbed.

Yet concerns remain that the law will not be broad enough to cover certain controversial uses of facial recognition. And regardless of what the new draft says, it remains just that: a draft, and not yet law.

A statement submitted to the inquiry by lawyers from the Human Rights Law Center calls it “extraordinary that the Australian government is, it seems, presently using identity-verification services on a mass scale without a lawful basis.” Numbers from 2022 show that the Document Verification Service was used more than 140 million times that year by private and public organizations. The biometric Facial Verification Service was used 2.6 million times by government agencies in the last financial year.

Meanwhile, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Lorraine Finlay, is concerned that the law is being rushed through before forthcoming reforms to the Privacy Act, which she says should come first to maintain “a harmonized position” on privacy.

The long-term fate of Australia’s digital ID program is currently uncertain, as it faces funding shortages and questions about how it will figure in the next federal budget.

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