Recent Australia Biometrics Move Criticized By Activists

Proponents of data privacy and digital rights have been on the back foot in Australia. But recent moves by the Federal Government are giving their cause fresh momentum.

The Government's newly created "mega-ministry" of Home Affairs wants to centrally compile Australians’ biometric data from passports, driver licenses and citizenship documents as a way of combatting terrorism and ensuring national security, but the new legislation is prompting fresh discussions on the digital rights of citizens.

The Home Affairs ministry has already been likened to the fictitious “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s 1984. Now, organizations such as Digital Rights Watch are mobilizing in response to the changes.

The organization has already claimed that Metadata Retention laws, which came into force in April last year, are a serious invasion of personal privacy. These laws require telecommunications companies to retain the mobile and online communications of all Australians for two years and made accessible to national security bodies.

This move prompted some criticism and debate, but so far it has been out of the mainstream. To this point, the Australian debate on data has been fairly one-sided, with victory in sight for those stakeholders who believe that trading off privacy and personal data is more than compensated by the financial and economic benefits.

Just as most people never read the terms and conditions of products, it has been argued that people are content to sign away their digital privacy if that means they receive some kind of benefit in return.

The agenda has been set by a 2017 report by the Productivity Commission, which has also sought submissions from the public and interest groups on the concept of “Open Data,” a regime in which data sharing can foster innovation and innovations but which also recognizes certain rights to privacy and access.

The dichotomy is well set out in the executive summary of the Productivity Commission report.

In one paragraph the report extolls the benefits of data sharing: “Extraordinary growth in data generation and usability has enabled a kaleidoscope of new business models, products and insights.  Improved data access and use can enable new products and services that transform everyday life, drive efficiency and safety, create productivity gains and allow better decision making.”

This is a motherhood statement for most people involved in the digital economy, and it was balanced by the next point: "Lack of trust by both data custodians and users in existing data access processes and protections and numerous hurdles to sharing and releasing data are choking the use and value of Australia’s data. In fact, improving trust community-wide is a key objective.”

It is easy to see this as a statement which needs to be made rather than one which needs to be observed and built into policy, particularly given the data juggernaut around sharing and aggregation.

The Australian Government has backed the idea of Open Data on a corporate level, but it has failed to entirely address to everyone’s satisfaction the reality that the data held by many organizations is originally private data.

Last year, a survey by the Digital Rights and Governance Project at the University of Sydney interviewed 1,600 Australians about their digital rights, the need for governance and the responsibilities of social media platforms.  

The findings show 67% of Australians take steps to protect their privacy online, but only 38% feel in control.

In their report released this week, Digital Rights Watch is warning Australians of a “systematic and wilful degradation of our human rights online.”

The report singles out the biometric facial recognition software which the Government wants to collect and centralize, but could also find its way into the private domain.

Retailers, advertisers, and shopping centers, it is claimed, could use this data to undermine one of the key protections of the Privacy Act, the right not to give your details if you are not so inclined.

In the property industry, for example, an occupier research report from CBRE nominated biometric authentication as a key “in demand” technology which occupiers expect landlords to provide.

In all of this debate, the key issue is achieving a balance, but it is unclear just who is the arbiter. On the one side there is security and commercial productivity and innovation, and on the other is privacy and freedom from state intrusion.

The current state of the debate suggests that the technology is well ahead of the law so far.

The argument, however, is still in its early stages and the mobilization of the privacy lobby shows that in Australia, at least, the right balance is yet to be found.