Māori data specialists not consulted on facial recognition technology used in government agencies - data sovereignty expert

Māori data specialists not consulted on facial recognition technology used in government agencies - data sovereignty expert
Photo credit: Getty Images

By Phil Pennington for RNZ

Māori data specialists are accusing the government of ignoring them while going ahead and expanding the reach of facial recognition technology.

Technology in use for three years at Internal Affairs was being extended for the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to use, and extended so it could search the driver licence photo database at the transport agency, Waka Kotahi.

It was part of work by seven major agencies led by Internal Affairs on a new approach to digital identity, which the government argues would give people more control over their own data, and more security.

"My understanding is that nobody in my professional Māori digital network has been consulted," data sovereignty PhD Karaitiana Taiuru said.

"No Māori organisation has been consulted, that I'm aware of either."

A 2020 privacy impact assessment on Social Development's use of the tech - getting clients to send it selfies to use facial recognition on - did not contain a single reference to Māori.

MSD said that assessment belonged to Internal Affairs (DIA).

The ministry said it had consulted with its Māori reference group last year after it restarted the work, taking a new approach where clients send selfies to DIA instead.

However, four members of the reference group told RNZ they had no recall of being consulted about it.

MSD vowed to engage further "to include a Te Ao Māori perspective in the design and to build trust in the approach".

Yet it was already far advanced down this track. "A business case has been developed and approved," group general manager income Jo Herewini said in a statement.

There was consultation with Māori over new laws, running parallel to the tech work.

A bill was expected to be passed in coming months to set up a system that gives digital identity service providers - everything from banks, to Immigration, to Federated Farmers - if they choose, an accreditation they can advertise (like, say, certified Master Builders) and a compliance regime they must adhere to. The specific rules would only be developed after the bill has passed.

Former member of Digital Identity New Zealand's executive council, Janelle Riki-Waaka (Tainui, Ngāti Hauiti) said in her experience that consultation was empty.

It was as if the approach had already mostly been decided on - it had been "absolutely" another case of things being done to Māori, without Māori, she said.

"That doesn't show trust, it doesn't show trust in Māori," she said.

Trust was the government's core message about digital identity; and a Cabinet committee paper stressed the importance of consulting Māori.

Riki-Waaka went to several short hui, with three or four other Māori experts.

A top priority they agreed on was to get officials to add a requirement that every provider must first have a Māori partner before they could get accredited.

"It would have sent a very clear message to anyone in the business of developing digital identity solutions, that this was high on the agenda and of a high level of importance in terms of the government and what they wished to see happen," Riki-Waaka said.

This did not make it into the bill, and she never heard back on why not.

Pākehā might struggle to understand that "for Māori, identity is everything" which was why having the protection of their voice at accredited providers accessing identity verification systems was so vital, she said.

"For us this fear of that identity being able to be replicated or used in different ways that we're not aware of, or that is duplicated for multiple purposes, is a really fearful space for us."

The Cabinet paper talks about the possible "re-use" of information within digital identity systems.

Internal Affairs had a Customer Nominated Services Approved Information Sharing Agreement with five other agencies, including MSD, to allow these agencies share people's personal information between them.

The Iwi Leaders Group's data unit was consulted on the bill. It declined to comment.

Neither Riki-Waaka nor Taiuru were aware of how far advanced the tech work was by government agencies, until RNZ reported on it in recent days.

"The department has breached its te Tiriti obligations," Taiuru said.

"This could become another claim to the Waitangi Tribunal."

The tribunal had already declared data a taonga.

Taiuru noted none of the eight members of the Māori reference group that MSD said it consulted - while experts in the likes of social policy or health - had specialist data knowledge.

"It seems very bizarre. The cabinet paper made numerous references that consultation with Māori was essential yet it's either not happening or happening with the wrong groups."

MSD told RNZ that Internal Affairs would address questions about the 2020 privacy impact assessment.

"We aren't able to comment on why DIA did or did not include something in a document written by them several years ago."

A second, later assessment covered access to NZTA's driver licence database but Internal Affairs said it was not finished so wouldn't release it yet to check what it said about Māori.

It said in a statement it had worked closely with Māori and iwi leader groups over its business case on investing in digital identity.

Implementing the trust framework had been paused but consultation on the framework was ongoing, DIA deputy chief executive service delivery and operations, Maria Robertson, said.

"Whilst we have not consulted with Iwi-Māori on the [privacy] assessments themselves, we regularly engage with Māori on a range of matters within the department including digital identity."

Its privacy impact assessments followed guidelines and templates from the Privacy Commissioner, she said.

The Transport Agency did not do its own impact assessment.

The system MSD aims to use was underpinned by a facial recognition solution provided by Irish tech firm Daon and hosted onsite by Internal Affairs.