Yet five months after the program was announced, we've been told very little about the Capability. There's no dedicated government website, webpages or fact sheets. Despite this dearth of information, the government expects the Capability to be operating by mid-2016.
What little we know — beyond two government media releases — has been gleaned from responses to Senator Ludlam's questions at Senate Estimates in May and last week, and reporting by a few specialist tech journalists, Crikey and Lateline.
In September, Keenan announced that the Federal Government is spending $18.5 million to establish the Capability. This announcement also revealed:
the Capability will initially provide one-to-one image-based verification service among Commonwealth agencies;
a one-to-many image-based identification service will follow to allow law enforcement and security agencies to match one photograph of an unknown person against many photographs contained in government records to help establish their identity; and
the government is also working with the states and territories to explore the scope for their police and road agencies to participate in the Capability.
We've been told that the facial images, over 100 million of them, will not be stored centrally. Katherine Jones, the AGD's deputy secretary for national security and criminal justice, informed Senate Estimates in May that the Capability is being established as a 'hub and spoke' system.
We later learned in response to a question on notice, that the Capability will also have the scope to scan CCTV images or stills. At a Senate Estimates hearing last week, Senator Ludlam elicited some further details, including that it is possible images from social media could be included.
Representatives from the AGD informed the hearing that they were undertaking privacy impact assessments in consultation with federal and state privacy commissioners.
Unfortunately, the track record on privacy impact assessments is not reassuring. In August, Lateline reported that there were no proper privacy impact assessments undertaken concerning almost 90 per cent of the national security measures passed in the past 14 years.
And a biometric data collection bill passed the Senate earlier this year, despite concerns over the wide expansion of powers. The privacy impact assessment relating to this bill was only tabled at the close of the second reading debate in the Senate. The public had no meaningful opportunity to review the assessment before the bill was passed.
Critical questions about the Capability remain unanswered. Is it necessary and proportionate? Is it the least privacy invasive solution to the problem? Are government agencies going to be open and transparent about the use of facial images it collects from us? Under what circumstances will law enforcement and government agencies be able to use the Capability, and who will authorise their use?
Who will be auditing the Capability? If errors are identified, are there adequate reporting mechanisms? For example, Dr Adam Molnar, lecturer in criminology at Deakin University, noted that: 'the latest facial technology is still plagued with error rates and inaccuracies ... in Australia there is no clear indication what authorities are willing to accept as an error rate when using facial recognition technology'.
The government hasn't provided any detail about what reporting will be required by the agencies concerning their use of the Capability, and what oversight there will be, if any.
Despite the introduction of new measures such as the Capability and data retention, we still don't have a dedicated privacy commissioner (Timothy Pilgrim is currently performing the functions of three statutory positions — acting information commissioner, FOI commissioner and privacy commissioner).
Nor is there any process for thorough parliamentary scrutiny of the Capability. The Attorney-General has stated that no new legislation is required, and confirmed at Senate Estimates last week that the government is not planning to undertake any general public consultation.
We need to continue this conversation. We need to demand our politicians ask the necessary questions and provide meaningful, timely answers.
Leanne O'Donnell is a senior lawyer with a focus on issues where technology and the law intersect. She tweets as @MsLods. This piece is written in her personal capacity.
Original artwork by Chris Johnston