Analysis: Government ministries testing out facial recognition technology - what you need to know

By Phil Pennington, Hamish Cardwell RNZ

Analysis - Documents show multiple government ministries and agencies have been batting about the idea of using controversial facial recognition technology. Here's what you need to know.

The basic facts (what we know):

In 2019, Internal Affairs started developing a facial recognition system called One Time Identity (OTI).

The tech can confirm the identity of a person using pictures - for example, from passport or drivers' licence photos.

It has been shopping the tech around other government ministries and agencies.

Read the original story here

Documents show that in February of this year the Transport Agency Waka Kotahi said there had been collaboration with the Health and Internal Affairs ministries on the issue.

It said the tech was "was successfully delivered to enable access to drivers' images for identity verification as part of the vaccine passport initiative".

The Social Development and Health ministries deny having access to photos, or using the tech.

Read responses from the agencies here

But we know the Ministry of Health looked at using the tech as part of introducing personal Covid-19 records.

And we know from the internal documents that the Social Development Ministry spent two years considering whether to use it to check the identity of beneficiaries.

These government entities, that can have considerable impact on people's lives, actively considered using facial recognition technology, or getting another agency to use it on their behalf.

The public did not know this.

The internal documents show MSD officials, including its senior privacy advisers and lawyers, took a long hard look at the technology.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner also weighed in.

Multiple government entities investigated and invested resources, talking at length, about potentially using the facial recognition system.

But they all say in the end they didn't - except for Internal Affairs (see below) - and stress if they do end up using it, it would only be after getting each person's consent.

Meanwhile, the pool of photos expands

Internal Affairs is part of an all-of-government programme to build a digital identity system, and to build public confidence in its use.

It has been using OTI to search through the passport photo database.

Waka Kotahi "was tasked" - the agency does not say by who - to develop tech to let Internal Affairs also search through drivers' licence photos.

Waka Kotahi said in a statement to RNZ more agencies would use the system if was expanded this way.

This expansion was not canvassed with the public, despite it meaning more peoples' information would be pulled into the system.

Why it matters

The expanded use of facial recognition technology is already changing the way the state interacts with you and your information.

Biometric information is becoming increasingly common for accessing the online world.

And access to public services is more and more available only online (just try to engage with IRD now without using MyIRD).

The rules and laws are changing, too via the Digital Identity Services Trust Framework Bill.

The select committee is a formal channel to hear people's ideas and concerns about the new data framework bill, via the select committee - the debate about sharing biometrics (faces, fingerprints, irises) has not made it to the street or water cooler.

The payoff from building trust in the tech has been put at $1.5b in efficiency savings for New Zealand by the Minister for the Digital Economy.