Australia invests $18m in facial recognition database to tackle cross border crimes

By @diplomatist10 on
Members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) forensic unit
Members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) forensic unit enter a garage with equipment at a house that was involved in pre-dawn raids in the western Sydney suburb of Guilford September 18, 2014. Reuters/David Gray

The Australian government will spend AU$18.5 million to create a national facial recognition database for supporting law enforcement agencies with sharable data in checking terror-related crimes and fraud. Known as Capability - short for The National Facial Biometric Matching Capability – the proposed database will scan 100 million facial images spread across different databases in the country.

The data platform has been envisaged as a critical response plan by the police ministers and attorneys-general for tackling cross-border criminal activities. Already agencies that issue identity documents in the country are keeping more than 100 million facial images in their data base, noted the Attorney General’s Department.

In the initial phase, the ‘ Capability” platform will be used by Department of Foreign Affairs, Immigration, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Defence, and the Attorney-General's Department.

Operational by 2016

According to the Federal Attorney-General's Department, it expects the system to be up and running by the middle of 2016. The sharable data of citizens' facial images will help in identifying unknown individuals and identities. The ‘Capability' will come handy in verifying a facial photograph by comparing it with the existing images on passports, visas and driver’s licences.

Since independent privacy impact assessments are involved, the agencies trying to use the platform will need legislative authority to collect and use facial images.

"The technical architecture of the capability will adopt a hub-and-spoke model to facilitate 'query and response' matching requests between participating agencies," the AGD clarified in August.


In terms of its functionality, a software will identify the most unique facial characteristics in a 'face print' and measure the attributes within the eyes and nose region of a person's face and try to match it with different databases of known individuals. Ultimately, the system is will cover every Australian citizen having a passport or drivers' licence.

Right now the focus will be on sharing still photos and moving images and use of moving images from licence plate cameras or CCTV will be avoided. But stills from such technologies could be used, the AGD said.

The creation of “Capability’ follows the passage of a bill that sought more biometric data on travellers at Australian airports, who are allegedly posing threat to national security by travelling abroad to join terrorist organisations.

Privacy concern

While Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the Capability will help in combating identity fraud and theft and curb terrorism and organised crime, some critics called it an invasion into privacy.

"It keeps Australians safe by protecting their identity and it allows our law enforcement authorities to accurately and efficiently to identify someone who might take their interest," the minister said. But privacy advocates flayed the move and said faces are scanned withput the consent of the individuals, ABC News reported.

“This is a whole other league of creepy, this is a whole other league of invasive and the fact that there's been no discussion around this is really weird,” was the reaction of cyber security expert Patrick Gray.

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