Privacy fears on post office push
* George Lekakis
* From: Herald Sun
* Tue Oct 20 00:00:00 EST 2009 Tue Oct 20 00:00:00 EST 2009
AUSTRALIA Post is introducing new technology that will enable staff at its 4443 retail outlets to take fingerprints, biometric scans and digital signatures from customers applying for bank accounts, passports and other services.
The Government-owned corporation is secretly testing the Big Brother technology at 25 outlets after its directors approved funding for the project at a March board meeting.
Documents seen by the Herald Sun show Australia Post plans to install the data capture equipment at 375 outlets by the end of June followed by another 400 in 2011.
Trials for the "Identification Services Program Project" are being held at 25 Australia Post-owned outlets in NSW and Western Australia, but the corporation is also planning to install the technology at 2000 privately managed post offices nationwide.
Privacy advocates are worried the new system may create fresh opportunities for organised criminals to exploit weaknesses in the network.
If state and federal governments approve the plan, Australia Post would become the first local organisation allowed to take digital fingerprints for commercial purposes. The power is limited to law enforcement agencies, the courts, spy agencies and the defence force.
Even though the project has been under development for more than six months, the corporation has kept a tight lid on it. There was no specific disclosure about it in Australia Post's annual report tabled in Federal Parliament last week.
Australia Post spokesman Alex Twomey confirmed fingerprinting capabilities would be introduced over the next two years and that staff would be trained in protocols for storing and transmitting customer information.
"Fingerprint information will be stored for six hours at the outlet and then transferred for storage at a central Australia Post database," he said. "Under agency agreements, we would then be required to wipe the information after it was sent to government departments or other corporate clients."
Privacy groups said yesterday they were horrified.
The chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation, Dr Roger Clarke, said: "I'm appalled by them appearing to get this technology off the ground without any public scrutiny.
"These types of initiatives are just too important to introduce without public discussion."
Dr Clarke said securing fingerprints and other data across such a large retail network was a major concern.
"When we're talking about 4000 outlets, many of which are privately owned, it's difficult to design a system that will protect all information," he said.