Migration Amendment (Strengthening Biometrics Integrity) Bill 2015

I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Biometrics Integrity) Bill 2015. I am happy to rise in support of this bill because it is a very important update to our security framework.

Obviously our border security framework contains some of the most important legislation that we administer and pass in this place.

Some of the provisions that are being updated in this bill that will update the Migration Act have been in place now for almost a decade. As a country, we have been collecting biometrics data now for almost 10 years. I do think the provisions in this bill provide sensible and modern updates to our biometrics collection framework. They are needed due to the changes in technology that have occurred in this area and also to expand the scheme to include minors, as Senator Fawcett outlined earlier.

I will come back to those points later in my speech but, at the outset, I want to place this bill in the broader framework of the government's agenda, which has been to strengthen our national security framework. This bill does support the broader changes that were made to the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014. That act did a range of things including address the emerging threat of Australians seeking to travel overseas to fight with terrorist organisations. This bill will help provide our law enforcement agencies with more information and more data collection powers to help them enforce the provisions of that earlier bill and therefore it is very important in that regard. Of course it does also fit into the broader framework of the Prime Minister's National Security Statement earlier this year that further legislation to combat terrorism and keep our country and our people self safe would be forthcoming. This is another version of that bill.

Of course I do not need to remind people in this chamber that events of the last couple of years have made it more keenly felt here the risks that we do face from terrorism events. We have faced them for some time. As I said, the provisions in this bill to do with biometrics emerged in a previous bout of terrorism incidents. The changes being made in this bill are a sensible update to those early changes. They do relate to the collection of biometrics by our border security enforcement agencies.

Biometrics, in simple terms, are unique identifiers that relate to each of us individually that allow enforcement agencies to identify particular individuals. They include things like facial images, fingerprints, iris scans, anything that can be digitised into a template and automated for storage and checking. The department has been collecting biometrics, as I said, since 2006. It has progressively expanded the collection of biometrics over this time using a risk based approach to identify who and what is collected. In 2010, the department commenced collecting biometrics from noncitizens applying for protection in Australia and from overseas applicants for visas, particularly from high-risk countries.

Biometrics are an extremely important integrity measure that contribute to protecting our borders and prevent the entry of persons who may do us harm. They anchor this information in a particular person's biography such as their name, their nationality, their date of birth and add to the capability of our law enforcement agencies to identify that person to ensure that that person is not trying to fraudulently pass themselves off as someone else They are more accurate than document based checks, which can of course be subject to fraud. Also, they can be linked to someone's broader documents, which prevents or at least minimises the chance of fraud occurring.

So far, the department has made more than 9,000 fingerprint matches over this period. These matches have revealed undisclosed security and criminal histories, as well as discrepancies between the biographic data provided to the department by individuals and that provided to other agencies. So they are clearly a very important law enforcement tool.

They have also been used to expose identity and immigration fraud. This includes individuals who have returned to Australia, or tried to return, under assumed identities, years after being removed from the country. Some others have attempted to gain protection here, under assumed identities, where they already have protection in other countries. The current biometric measures have exposed fraudulent and illegal activity in these instances, but the sophistication of the technology used to enter Australia illegally has started to develop and evolve and strain the resources of our existing agencies. It is therefore our duty to make sure our laws are updated to match these technological developments. That is why we are proposing these amendments today. Our current regime has effectively supported our border protection efforts for some time, but we do need to keep pace with these emerging technologies.

So, what does this bill do? It provides a more simplified framework for the collection of biometrics. I believe that currently the government is limited to 12 prescribed purposes for which it can elect biometric data. This bill will replace those 12 existing purposes with a broader ability or power to collect biometric information, in accordance with the purposes of the act and the regulations. Importantly, this bill will allow the government or the department to update and be flexible, as technology develops, to collect biometric data in another way.

I know that there are some concerns that this bill broadens the powers of the executive to collect this information, but I would say that any changes to regulations and the particular application of those regulations in this act by the executive, be it a coalition government or some future government of another party, are still subject to the scrutiny of parliament, including through our estimates procedures. I am sure that if there are any departures from the purposes as listed in this bill, they will be diligently exposed by this chamber. It is important to say that while this bill does provide for a simplified scheme for the collection of this data it does not introduce a universal biometrics collection policy. The department will continue to facilitate the smooth travel to Australia of the overwhelming majority of people who are legitimate travellers and law-abiding people, without collecting additional biometrics. While acknowledging the impact on travellers in circumstances where a certain amount of identity verification is required, the increased collection powers are proportionate to the legitimate purpose of protecting the Australian community, and the integrity of the migration program.

The bill will also address gaps in our existing biometric framework and replace seven existing provisions in the Migration Act that separately authorise the collection of biometrics in particular circumstances with a single broad discretionary power to collect biometrics for the purposes of the Migration Act or the migration regulations. Streamlining these multiple provisions will remove inconsistencies and duplication and enhance the department's effort to achieve important government policy objectives. These include removing current restrictions on circumstances where biometrics can be collected and providing flexibility in the collection of biometrics from citizens and noncitizens who are arriving and departing Australia.

The bill provides a broader power to collect biometrics from noncitizens who have been identified as of concern, after their arrival, and from behaviour while living in Australia. Significant numbers of noncitizens have not had identity, security and criminal history checks conducted under the department's biometric program, either because of the timing of their entry into Australia or because of their method of arrival. Each year, only a small number of noncitizens are required to provide their biometrics for checking. In 2013-14, less than two per cent of noncitizens granted a visa to come to Australia provided biometrics to the department. As a result, the higher integrity identity, security, law enforcement and immigration history checks that are possible using biometrics have been conducted on only a small number of people who have travelled to Australia. So it is very important that this bill expands those instances where data is collected.

The bill will provide the ability to remain flexible, particularly in the face of emerging technologies. That was identified in the Senate committee report, where the department outlined how at times the existing provisions of the bill restrict them to using certain types of traditional technology—for example, collecting fingerprints. The bill will provide them with the ability to use mobile phones and indeed to collect data in other ways in the future through technologies that we probably cannot envisage at the moment.

The bill will also allow the collection of biometric information from minors, which may sound strange, but it is an important people smuggling protection. For that reason it should be supported. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, I believe this bill is a timely updating of our border security framework, and in particular our ability to collect biometric information and it should be supported by the Senate.

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