Malcolm Turnbull compared access to drivers' licence photos to combat terrorism to what people put on Facebook

Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images (digitally altered image)

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull wants Australia’s state and territories to give the federal government drivers’ licence photos as part of new counter-terrorism measures involving facial recognition technology.

“What we’re talking about is taking drivers’ licences and other photo IDs that are in the government domain and.. being able to access them swiftly and using automation to do so,” he said.

He subsequently told ABC radio that 50% of the Australian population is already part of the government’s facial recognition database via their passport photo.

Turnbull flagged the ability to be able to identify and track people in real time using CCTV surveillance in public spaces such as shopping centres, airports and stadiums as “vitally important”.

He said the government wanted to automate “a clunky manual system”, adding that police already access licence photos.

“What we need to do is to make [the licence photos] immediately available, combine them with other biometric data like passport photographs for example, that the Commonwealth has, so that we’re in a position to identify people in real time,” he said.

“I mean, imagine the power of being able to identify, to be looking out for and identify a person suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, walking into an airport, walking into a sporting stadium. You know, this is a fundamentally vital piece of technology that takes it up to an additional level of protection, as we are committed, as I’ve said, to keep Australians safe. We will use every technology and every technique that is available to do that.”

The prime minister rejected privacy concerns by comparing the photos the Commonwealth would access with those already made public by Facebook.

“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.

Turnbull said the date would remain confidential.

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

Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin said that a rise of identity theft was part of rationale behind the push.

“This really is about how can we get identity verification as quickly as we possible can,” he said.

Justice minister Michael Keenan said it was about “allowing the police to access the data they currently access, in a 21st Century way, rather than a 1950s way that currently exists”.

The minister said it currently it can take police more than a week to identify people using their face.

With state and territory leaders due to discuss counter-terrorism measures with their Commonwealth counterparts at a special Council of Australian Government in Canberra tomorrow, NSW Coalition premier Gladys Berejiklian was the first state leader to back the PM’s plan, saying “sometimes it does mean that all of us have to give up a little bit of our civil liberties”.

Berejiklian also announced today that the NSW government plans to introduce new laws to allow authorities to detain people jailed for terrorism offences for up to five years beyond their sentence.

The Commonwealth is proposing tougher anti-terrorism laws at COAG on Thursday, including new offences for possessing terrorism material and terrorism hoaxes, as well as nationally uniform laws to detain terror suspects for up to 14 days.

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