INTERSEKT: Startups want access to Turnbull's facial image database

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A computer screen running ‘Real Time Face Detector’ software shows a photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel analysed. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

The federal government this month revealed it signed a landmark agreement with its state and territory counterparts to provide law enforcement with real-time access to images of Australians for biometric facial recognition.

People’s portraits would be sourced from documents like drivers’ licences, passports and visa applications, to be stored in a central biometric database of what every Australian looks like.

The system has raised privacy and state surveillance concerns, but one regulatory tech executive has urged the government to go one step further and allow the private sector to access the images.

“I would openly encourage that private, vetted businesses have controlled access to the source facial images inherent in these government-issued documents through a secure gateway,” said E4 Australia managing director Stuart Hosford.

“For us, we see facial recognition as a clear and key component of managing the evolving threat of fraud and terrorism funding in the world in which we now live in.”

Hosford said currently a well-forged passport could easily sneak through human inspectors.

Stuart Hosford. (Source: supplied)

“In some cases, [a forgery] would not be flagged with a biometric scan and/or an electronic document check through the Document Verification Service provided by the Attorney General.”

A real-time verification of facial images would preventing this fraud, according to Hosford, and there was no reason why the private sector should be barred from such a capbility.

“As an industry, we should all have the opportunity to contribute to facilitate this very positive change if we are able to do so.”

E4 already provides virtual “verification of identity” services to fintech startup HashChing. Customers on the mortgage broker marketplace can prove their identity electronically when submitting a new loan application.

David Birch, director of Consult Hyperion and expert on digital identity, said biometric security was “an excellent option” for the finance industry.

“Elderly people, in particular, like facial recognition technology because it is so convenient and it is something they can easily understand,” he said.

“This is something we need to build on, because all our big banking reforms – such as open banking and instant payments – cannot effectively take place without a shared and trusted digital identity solution.”

Birch, like Horsford, said a centralised identification database is crucial for the future of fintech and banking.

“We can’t continue to have the situation where people need their own individual banking passcodes from individual institutions. We need a shared digital identity solution and biometrics will be a huge part of this.”

Lisa Schutz, chief executive of regtech firm Verifier, said it may not be so easy to convince Australians that a mass repository of facial images is a good idea.

Lisa Schutz. (Source: supplied)

“Some cultures can handle more centralised control of information, but I suspect that Australians are at the other end of the spectrum,” she said.

“It’s not just the breach risk of encouraging massive honeypots of individual-level data that I struggle with. I also think we need to reflect on community values when we consider uses for data of any kind.”

Unlike passwords and stolen credit card numbers, Schutz said, biometric identity cannot be “reset”, which must be a consideration in setting up any potential national facial image database.

“We need to be crystal clear on when facial recognition might be needed, for instance criminal investigations, versus what is scope creep — for instance, using facial recognition to substitute for non-biometric digital identity systems.”

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull refuted privacy concerns last week, citing that these days people have personal information, including images, on public display through social media.

“I don’t know if you’ve checked your Facebook page lately, but people put an enormous amount of their own data up in the public domain already — I mean there has never been more data on citizens than there is today,” he said on ABC radio.

“We have very, very rigorous privacy protections in terms of the use of government data and government-held biometric data.”

Schutz said she believed Australia could find a happy medium to balance civil liberties concerns with security, and the solution could be a gold mine for the nation.

“Finding solutions which reflect our culture and values will lead us towards a major export opportunity,” she said.

“Why wouldn’t communities around the world who share our values and sentiments want to leverage the federated, high-integrity data sharing framework that we are more than capable of developing?”

David Birch will be delivering an international keynote on digital identity, while Stuart Horsford and Lisa Schutz will be appearing on a panel at the Collab/Collide Summit, held as part of the Intersekt fintech festival, on 2 November 2017 in Melbourne. Book your tickets at

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