Aust set for expanded facial surveillance

Roje Adaimy
(Australian Associated Press)

Federal police could soon have the ability to identify suspected terrorists and criminals walking through shopping centres, stadiums or airports in real time.

The federal government wants to beef up its national database to include photos from driver’s licences and other IDs for its facial recognition system.

Malcolm Turnbull will on Thursday ask state and territory leaders to agree to hand over the photos at a special national security meeting in Canberra.

The prime minister said adding such data to the passport and immigration information already accessed by police will help keep Australians safe.

“Imagine the power of being able to be looking out for and identify a person suspected of being involved in terrorist activities walking into an airport or sporting stadium,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“This is a fundamentally vital piece of technology that (gives) an additional level of protection.”

Mr Turnbull and Justice Minister Michael Keenan insist the move won’t grant agencies more powers or provide any new data, just speed up and automate the process.

They also played down the threat of the data being hacked, acknowledging the risk existed, but was not enough to stop them from properly equipping police.

“What we are doing is allowing police to access the data they currently access in a 21st century way rather than a 1950s way,” Mr Keenan said.

“It takes them seven to 10 days to do now – we’ll be able to do it instantaneously.”

If the states and territories co-operate, as expected, the government is hoping the updated system will be operational by the end of 2018.

Mr Turnbull will also push for federal laws to allow terror suspects to be held without charge for up to two weeks.

He insists there will be appropriate oversight, as there is with existing laws, with the need for a judicial officer to approve the detention.

As it stands, only police in NSW have the power to detain a person for questioning for up to 14 days – with most states allowing only a maximum of seven.

Mr Turnbull wants nationally consistent pre-charge detention laws and has been working on a stronger regime that gets around some legal impediments.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin said police no longer have the luxury to watch, wait and collect evidence before they act when it comes to terrorist activity.

That came to the fore earlier this year in the operation to foil a plot to bring down a plane in Sydney.

“We need the time to properly disrupt criminal enterprises,” he said

“We’re very comfortable that two weeks is the appropriate period of time – with the right scrutiny and safeguards in place – to investigate properly.”

The states and territories will also be asked to consider new criminal offences to target people who possess material that could be used to prepare or carry out a terrorist act – similar to laws around the possession of child porn.

That could include accessing instructions to build bombs or techniques to blow up planes.

“There’s no legitimate purpose or justification for having information like that and that should be an offence,” Mr Turnbull said.

A new Commonwealth offence for terrorism hoaxes will also be put to leaders, to cover things like falsely claiming a knife or vehicle attack.

Meanwhile, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has flagged new laws to allow radicalised inmates to be detained beyond their prison sentence even if they were locked up for non-terror offences.


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