Turnbull does deal with states on facial ID, dismisses mass surveillance concerns

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dismissed suggestions a new facial recognition database could lead to the mass surveillance of Australians, arguing it will update law enforcement tools for the 21st century and help keep people safe.

Mr Turnbull and state premiers signed off on the creation of the new national facial biometric matching capability, as expected, at a special Council of Australian Government's meeting in Canberra on Thursday.

The database will, in effect, pull together the photos on people's drivers licences, in their passports and on their visas in one place and be accessible to state and federal police agencies for counter-terrorism and other criminal investigations when they are investigating a crime and have a legal purpose to seek access to the database.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's portrait with an artist impression of facial biometric reference points.  Photo: Supplied

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's portrait with an artist impression of facial biometric reference points. Photo: Supplied

Privacy advocates including the Australian Privacy Foundation, Digital Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation as well as the Greens criticised the proposal as an erosion of civil liberties.

At present, this photo ID information is available to law enforcement agencies but is provided manually and can take up to a week to travel from one police force to another.

Federal and some state laws will need to be amended to set up the database, which Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk wants to have up and running in time for the April 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Two new laws that make it an offence to commit a terrorism hoax and to possess terrorist instructional material were also agreed, as was a nationwide 14 day pre-charge detention regime, while a plan to make it easier to call out the Australian Defence Force in response to a terrorism incident was also discussed and will likely be legislated early next year.

Those three privacy groups criticised the creation of the facial recognition database as " warrantless mass surveillance " and "overkill".

But backed by state and territory leaders from both sides of the political aisle, Mr Turnbull said the move would simply update current practice for the 21st century.

"This is not accessing information, photo ID information that is not currently available. We are talking about bringing together essentially federal government photo IDs, passports, visas and so forth, together with driver's licences," Mr Turnbull said.

"These are all available to law enforcement agencies now and have been for many years, if not for generations. What we have not been doing is accessing them in a modern 21st century way. It shouldn't take seven days to be able to verify someone's identity or seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest. It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time."

"It doesn't involve mass - it doesn't include surveillance or indeed mass surveillance...What we're talking ... is using photo IDs in the possession of road transport authorities and the states and territories and passports, photos and visa photos, in the possession of the Commonwealth. They're used, accessed by law enforcement agencies already, to determine identity."

The Prime Minister confirmed the database could be used to solve all crimes and, that, a private security operator could seek access to the database, though that that access would be governed by law enforcement agencies.

Victorian state Premier Daniel Andrews said that while some people would focus on the "notional infringement, the notional reduction in peoples' rights and liberties and freedoms, the rights and liberties of a small number of people".

"Some people have the luxury of being able to have that notional debate.Those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury. We are called to act and we are called to make the changes necessary to give to law enforcement and our security agencies everything they need to keep Australia safe," he said.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said all the state and territory first ministers had accepted that keeping their citizens safe was of paramount concern.

"The threat situation we live in has not changed. It is not a maybe, it is probable and it is important for us to have come together," she said.

Greens justice spokesman Nick McKim said that Liberal and Labor party leaders had signed away a "tranche of hard-won rights and freedoms".

"This is an unjustified trampling of people's basic liberties, including the freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and the right to privacy. Detaining people for two weeks without charge is offensive to Australian values and the rule of law."

The law change that will allow terrorism suspects be detained for up to 14 days before being charged will bring other jurisdictions into line with NSW.

The Turnbull government believes the recently foiled plot to blow up a plane in Sydney serves as the best example for the shift to a nationally consistent 14 days detention regime.

The Privacy Foundation's chairman David Vaile said the facial recognition database was an unnecessary and disproportionate invasion of the privacy rights of all Australians, incompatible with a free and open society.

" The criminal face database will affect all Australians, even the most conscientious and law-abiding. Given the extremely low level of terrorism in Australia, it's likely to merely generate massive 'false positive' lists and flood our very effective police and security services with useless distraction," he said.

This story Turnbull does deal with states on facial ID, dismisses mass surveillance concerns first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.