Australia set to collect more biometric data at airports

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Australia set to collect more biometric data at airports

Committee rubberstamps government bill.

A parliamentary committee has given its approval to the Coalition government's controversial plans to expand the types of biometric data it collects on Australian citizens, foreigners and minors at the country's airports.

The government has been trying since last year to introduce laws to collect additional types of biometric data and extend the legislation to include Australian citizens.

But its efforts - included as part of its 'foreign fighters' bill - were initially knocked back by the parliamentary committee reviewing the bill, which argued such changes should by covered under entirely new legislation given the sensitive nature of the information involved.

The government therefore introduced its Migration Amendment (Strengthening Biometrics Integrity) Bill 2015 in March this year.

The bill aims to expand biometric data collection to include fingerprints and iris scans in order to tackle the threat of Australians seeking to travel overseas to fight with terrorist organisations.

The Department of Immigration currently collects facial images, signatures and fingerprints in limited circumstances.

It is only currently able to collect biometric information from non-citizens, and only for the purpose of granting a visa, to determine whether the person holds a valid visa, for the purpose of deciding whether a person should be put in detention, or when the person needs to leave or enter Australia.

The new laws would ensure that any type of personal identifier - defined as fingerprints or handprints; a person's height and weight; photograph of a person's head and shoulders; audio or video recording of a person; an iris scan; or a signature - can be collected from an individual.

The legislation would apply to Australians and foreigners leaving or entering the country, unauthorised maritime arrivals who have not applied for a visa, foreigners who have applied for temporary or permanent protection visas, and visa holders subject to identity fraud allegations.

The parliamentary committee tasked with looking into the bill today rubberstamped the proposed legislation with a few minor adjustments, despite concerns over the wide expansion of powers it proposes.

The Privacy Commissioner, the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) and the Law Council of Australia all expressed concerns that the bill went above and beyond what is necessary for Immigration to perform its functions, and could fall prey to scope creep.

"[T]he bill should exhaustively define the purposes for which personal identifiers are collected and the types of personal identifiers that may be collected. The power to prescribe these matters by way of regulation should be removed from the bill," the Law Council of Australia argued.

"[To] minimise the privacy impacts of the bill, any expansion of the existing power to collect biometric information from non-citizens should be drafted narrowly and limited to only what is necessary," Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said.

Removing parental consent for minors

One of the more contentious elements of the bill is an expansion of law enforcement powers to collect the biometric data of minors under 15 and incapable persons without the need to obtain consent or have a parent or guardian present.

The measure is aimed at preventing the return of "potentially radicalised minors" and protecting children from trafficking, according to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Minors under 15 are currently legally exempt from having to provide personal identifiers - other than height and weight measurements or photograph of their face and shoulders - under the Migration Act.

Consent of a parent or guardian is needed to collect this information for minors. The same limits and rules apply for incapable persons.

The ALHR argued the changes were inconsistent with Australia's international obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The Law Council of Australia similarly said the provision would not always be in the best interests of the child.

But the committee said the measures were warranted given "the emerging threat of young people seeking to become involved in terrorist activities overseas" as well as ongoing concerns about human trafficking.

It suggested the concerns be addressed through Immigration's policies and guidelines.

Not enough protection of privacy

The Australian Privacy Foundation argued the bill does not contain sufficient safeguards to protect the privacy of individuals, givent the protections are based on policy rather than included in the legislation.

"... insistence on 'policy intent' through post hoc regulatory developments leaves open significant possibility for mission-creep associated with the bill. This is especially the case when considered alongside the compounding effects of technological advancements," it wrote.

The Immigration department revealed it had completed a privacy impact assessment (PIA) with regards to the bill, and said it would provide the report to the Privacy Commissioner before parliament next sits.

Pilgrim said while he welcomed the move, the department needed to publish the PIA to give Australians confidence about whether the government had fully considered the privacy impacts of the bill and implemented any necessary safeguards,

The committee said it was "pleased" the department was conducting the privacy assessment and trusted that "any issues raised by the Privacy Commissioner will be duly considered by the government, and that any required changes to current operating procedures and requirements will be implemented, including via further legislative amendments if necessary".

It agreed the PIA should be published to allay any privacy concerns before being passed through parliament.

Labor issues dissenting report

However the report was not supported by the Labor contingency of the majority Coalition committee, which said it had "serious concerns" about the bill in its current form.

"We argue that the bill lacks genuine independent oversight, and that the retention of and arbitrary collection of biometric information raises concerns from collection, and then subsequent use and retention," Labor MPs Catryna Bilyk and Sue Lines wrote in a dissenting report.

They argued a "thorough review" by the Privacy Commissioner was needed into how the department plans to store and secure the biometric data, and supported the Commissioner's recommendation that the privacy assessment be made public.

The senators also expressed concerns about the lack of safeguards for minors and incapable persons, the government's ability to make changes to the bill through policy reform without having to consult parliament.

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