Facial image matching system risks ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms, rights groups say

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Civil rights groups have warned a vast, powerful system allowing the near real-time matching of citizens’ facial images risks a “profound chilling effect” on protest and dissent.

The technology – known in shorthand as “the capability” – collects and pools facial imagery from various state and federal government sources, including driver’s licences, passports and visas.

The biometric information can then rapidly – almost in real time – be compared with other sources, such as CCTV footage, to match identities.

The system, chiefly controlled by the federal Department of Home Affairs, is designed to give intelligence and security agencies a powerful tool to deter identity crime, and quickly identify terror and crime suspects.

But it has prompted serious concern among academics, human rights groups and privacy experts. The system sweeps up and processes citizens’ sensitive biometric information regardless of whether they have committed or are suspected of an offence.

Critics have warned of a “very substantial erosion of privacy”, function creep and the system’s potential use for mass general surveillance. There are also fears about the level of access given to private corporations and the legislation’s loose wording, which could allow it to be used for purposes other than related to terrorism or serious crime.

States agreed to the concept at a Council of Australian Governments meeting last year, though it is yet to be legislated by federal parliament.

New South Wales is one of the states in favour of the capability, and is legislating to allow state driver’s licences to be shared with the commonwealth and investing $52.6m over four years to facilitate its rollout.

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