Government now identifying Australians with biometric face-matching

The Australian government has just switched on a massive system for matching and sharing photos of its citizens, with passport and licence photos set to be added to the database.

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Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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Claire Reilly
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Every move you make, every overseas trip you take, the Australian government and police can now match your face to a massive digital database.

The federal government yesterday announced that the first phase of its new biometric Face Verification Service (FVS) is up and running, giving a number of government departments and the Australian Federal Police the ability to share and match digital photos of faces.

The FVS will initially just include "citizenship images," or photos of those people who have applied for citizenship in Australia.

But the government's new biometric arsenal isn't just about matching the faces of known citizens -- a Face Identification Service, set to launch in 2017, will allow government agencies to identify people from unknown photographs.

Biometric identification -- the digital tracking of biological traits such as a person's fingerprints, facial features, iris detail or even their gait -- is not new. Australian passports now have a digital version of your photo encoded into a RFID chip in the middle page, while SmartGates at airports allow the government to digitally scan and record the faces of travellers to match to travel documents.

But the new FVS allows biometric data to be shared like never before.

Under the scheme, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Australian Federal Police can access citizenship images held by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. They will now have the power to match a person's photo against an image on file, and then share these images between agencies.

In a media statement, Minister for Justice Michael Keenan said the new system would help protect against identity fraud and allow authorities to track down criminals using fake identity documents.

But experts are already warning of scope creep, saying the justifications for using biometric data could become broader, putting civil liberties and privacy at risk, without the adequate oversight.

While the FVS now uses citizenship images, Minister Keenan said other types of images such as visa and passport photos will be added to the scheme. The federal government is also working with the states and territories to provide access to driver licence photos for the FVS.

Minister Keenan said the Face Identification Service, set to launch next year to identify unknown identities, will "be used for investigations of more serious offences, with access restricted to a limited number of users in specialist areas."

But for those concerned with scope creep, the minister said access to the Face Verification System was set to "expanded to other government agencies" -- though no specifics were given.

Privacy expert and assistant professor of law at University of Canberra, Bruce Baer Arnold, says Australians will have little choice in having their biometric data stored and shared.

"If you are dealing with many Commonwealth and state/territory agencies, you don't have a choice about being imaged. You don't have a choice about which entities get to see your data," he told CNET.

He also warned that biometric databases can "get a life of their own" as more government agencies access biometric data and it gets used for more purposes.

"The databases get shared. Restrictions on sharing get weakened," he said. "[Governments start saying] It's normal, it's unremarkable. So why don't we extend it a little bit?"