Facial Recognition in Australia

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An interesting endeavour has been undertaken by the federal government of Australia via the Council of Australian Governments to introduce a facial recognition database. An inquiry by the Human Rights Law Centre about the Identity-matching Services Bill (2018) details concerns around this development.

Facial recognition as defined in the inquiry is a way to match one picture of a person to another picture. This can be done by comparing a picture to a sea of others to identify a person, or to compare a picture to fewer pictures to verify an identity. A unique aspect of facial recognition is that it relies on biometrics, measurements and data specific to each person.

This database would store the identity of Australians, along with the pictures on their passports and driver’s licences. This information would be placed in a hub of information, accessible to state and territory governments, its agencies, law enforcement agencies, and private institutions like banks. The bill states that this information would be collected for the following purposes: identity matching for community activities and safety, the operation and maintenance of a database called the “National Drivers Licence Facial Recognition Solution,” and to protect the identities of individuals in witness protection.

A challenge that arises is privacy of citizens.

Apart from the purposes mentioned above, this database could be used to improve counter-terrorism efforts and policing. Storage of these photos would allow agents to compare real-time surveillance footage against what has been stored, to try and identify individuals as quickly and efficiently as possible. Citizens could lose their sense of anonymity and freedom, since this type of surveillance could extend to all public areas, thus giving individuals the power to track a person’s movement closely.

There is also the possibility that this database could be used in situations outside of national security concerns. As mentioned in various articles, these images of people could be used for smaller offences like driving infractions. The inquiry makes the point that there is a lack of transparency with this type of software, because wide ranging searches could occur. In addition to the lack of transparency, the bill mentions the threat to freedom of expression. Individuals attending protests, vigils, and demonstrations in public places could be tracked despite their desire to remain anonymous within the large crowd. A sense of paranoia could arise, forcing people to change their behaviour or not exercise their democratic right of expression.

As a democratic country, Australia now has the task to reach a compromise that allows the surveillance they want to achieve while preserving the rights of its citizens; ideally, one that will offer more protection to privacy and expression rights of Australians.

This blog post was written by a CCLA Volunteer. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA.