Keith Locke on the Identity Information Confirmation Bill – first reading



The Identity Information Confirmation Bill is a difficult bill. There is a genuinely good purpose to it, which is to prevent fraudulent activity: that is, claiming someone else’s identity for a fraudulent purpose. However, there is also a big downside. It is, in effect, a significant move in the direction of an electronic ID card, with all the civil liberties difficulties that that entails. The Government databases for births, deaths, and marriages, civil unions, passports, and citizenship will be put at the service of not only public agencies but also private agencies such as banks, insurance companies, and credit agencies. Those private agencies will be able to get the identity of a person confirmed by the State and use that information for their own advantage. It could also enable discrimination against people applying for jobs. For example, one of the pieces of information that employers and others will be provided with instantaneously by email is the place of birth of a person. That could open the way for discrimination on the basis of national origin, as it has overseas in similar circumstances. Take, for example, a South African-born job applicant who is faced with an employer who is biased against people who, in Paul Henry’s terms, are not real New Zealanders.

The State will now be providing any such discriminatory employee an immediate check on the applicant’s place of birth, and this employer will be able to exclude that person from the job even before they have got to the interview. Potential employees are supposed to give approval for the employer to check with the State database, but if they really want the job they would be unlikely to block it.

One thing that particularly concerns the Greens is that the system does provide for what is in effect an electronic ID card via a provision in clause 5, whereby identity information includes “the photograph in the passport”. The electronic photograph provides a biometric identifier of the person. There is already a photographic identification system operating at the SmartGates at New Zealand’s airports, which compares the features and photographs taken of us as we pass through immigration and customs with a simplified version of our photograph contained in the immigration and customs database and in the chip in our passport. According to the Customs Service website this “Facial recognition technology works by mapping the underlying bone structure of the face, for example, the distances between eyes, nose, mouth and ears. The measurements are then digitally coded to be used for comparison and verification purposes. With SmartGate, a mathematical formula is used to determine whether the photo of the traveller’s face matches their ePassport photo”. So what is likely to happen under this bill—and fairly soon I imagine—is that when people stand at the counter of their bank, there is likely to be a camera taking a photograph as they fill in, say, a form to start up an account. This form will contain a box asking if they agree to the bank checking their identity, which if they want a bank account they will be likely to tick. The photograph the bank takes will then be emailed to the Department of Internal Affairs which will then respond in seconds as to whether it matches the digitally coded version of the photograph in its passport database. One might say that is the same as the existing SmartGate procedure, but firstly, one has a choice of whether to use SmartGate or to go through customs in a less biometrically intrusive way. Secondly do we really want all kinds of private agencies such as banks, shops, insurance companies, and credit agencies checking us in this way? It is true that under clause 13 Government officials must consult the Privacy Commissioner if they are “proposing to enter into a confirmation agreement that will allow a comparison of an individual’s photographic image against any photographic images of that individual”. Such a consultation with the Privacy Commissioner is good, but in reality it would only slow down, not stop, the creep towards a universal ID card and all the ethical problems associated with it.

If this bill is passed, then facial recognition systems may become commonplace in the banks and in the larger shops.

There is already a debate on privacy problems associated with facial recognition systems, particularly around their use on the Internet. Google already has a facial recognition system in Picasa to allow people to tag a particular individual in their own photos on the Picasa photo storage site. It can scan thousands of such photographs in an individual set and tag individuals in this manner. Google was also going to introduce a more general facial recognition search function on the web, but pulled back because of a bit of reaction as to the privacy implications. Another agency already finds photos of people by searching Facebook sites. One can imagine the problems here, not only for people’s privacy but also, for example, a woman trying to stay away from a violent possessive former spouse. The woman could happen to be snapped in a group picture at some event, perhaps without her knowledge, and the picture is then put on the net and discovered by the former spouse who is chasing her by using this facial recognition technology.

The debate over privacy issues on facial recognition systems and ID cards is growing around the world. In Britain the Liberal Democrats made privacy issues a major issue in its election campaign, and the very first bill introduced by the new Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition was the Identity Documents Bill, which cancelled the Labour Government’s programme for a universal ID card, a programme that was already under way. The bill cancelled all those ID cards that have already been handed out and abolishes the National Identity Register. The British Home Secretary, Theresa May explained to Parliament on 9 June: “Photographs and fingerprint biometrics will be securely destroyed. This will not be a literal bonfire of the last Government’s vanities, but it will none the less be deeply satisfying. The national identity register will then cease to exist entirely”. The Home Secretary said such moves were not about “just saving money”—which was estimated to be about US$6 billion—”But it’s also about principle…We did believe there was a liberties argument for not enforcing ID cards on the British people”. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “Cancelling the scheme and abolishing the National Identity Register is a major step in dismantling the surveillance state—but ID cards are just the tip of the iceberg. Today marks the start of a series of radical reforms to restore hard-won British freedoms”. There is also an intention to abolish biometric fingerprint passports, which was another British Labour Party measure. In New Zealand we are not “dismantling the surveillance State” to use Nick Clegg’s words but extending it, not only through this bill but also through continually expanding the number of linkages between the database of one Government department with the database of another. This is called data matching, and there are now around 50 bilateral operating programmes linking the databases of departments covering Customs, Internal Revenue, ACC, Justice, Immigration, Social Development, Education, and Internal Affairs. This bill before us allows this data matching in terms of confirmation of identity to extend well beyond existing State agencies to a whole range of private agencies in New Zealand. This bill will also, by its example, encourage more private agencies to keep their own identifying databases of people including digital photos, or digitally coded representations of photos matching those in the passport’s office database. This Identity Information Confirmation Bill is not part of what Nick Clegg calls the dismantling of the surveillance State, rather it is a step towards such a State. For that reason the Green Party will be voting against this bill.