Facial recognition technology in Australia finds its critics

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The COVIDSafe contact-tracing app is not the only technology causing furrowed brows among human rights groups across the country. Facial recognition software is also making a slow creep into our lives, but at what cost?

On any one day, a million cameras are watching us on Australian streets. That’s double the number than a decade ago. They’re scanning pedestrians, jay walkers, road users and potential law breakers.

The mass surveillance could potentially ramp up a notch with a proposed national facial recognition system which the Federal Government plans to share across states and territories.

UniSA senior law lecturer Dr Sarah Moulds says under the legislation the Department of Home Affairs would administer a national hub, intensifying citizen-tracking abilities for a range of purposes.

“The Bill would allow government agencies to share facial recognition data to help combat identity crime as well as to promote community safety and help identify individuals who were missing or in times of disaster,” she says.

It’s a step too far, however, for the government’s parliamentary committee with the responsibility to provide oversight on intelligence and security matters, which has effectively blocked the legislation – for now.

In a recent paper published in the Alternative Law Journal, Dr Moulds says scrutiny of the proposed identity matching laws has revealed how intrusive the legislation could be for Australians.

“Human rights groups have labelled it a massive breach of individual privacy,” Dr Moulds says.

“Under the law, facial recognition data would be shared among a wide range of agencies to confirm the identity of any Australian with government-approved documentation, such as a driver’s licence or passport, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime.”

She believes another concern is that the software used to capture or match facial recognition, is fallible and has high error rates depending on someone’s ethnicity.

“It’s one thing to fast track border immigration controls with facial recognition technology (FRT) but relying on CCTV street cameras to accurately match faces to passports and driver’s licences is inherently risky,” Dr Moulds says.

“Using FRT in a controlled, consent-based environment like an airport or customs office to confirm identity from a passport photo is not a major concern because of the quality of the data. But relying on photos from a CCTV camera to collect information about people at a protest, or road users breaking the law for example, is problematic as it is far less reliable.”

Dr Moulds says there is a danger in assuming that facial recognition technology is 100 per cent accurate.

“When DNA testing first came in, juries were (wrongly) convinced it was infallible,” she says. “We’re at the same stage with FRT where people believe it is accurate when in fact it has the same potential weaknesses as many other things, such as finger printing or handwriting.”

She says the rejection of the proposed Identity Matching Laws by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Safety (PJCIS) should give comfort to Australians that adequate safeguards are in place to protect our privacy.

“The committee is not strictly rejecting facial recognition technology out of hand but indicating we can do better with getting the balance right.”

Dr Moulds says the COVIDSafe app is a good example of how our democratic structures can ensure this balance.

“The Federal Government initially wielded its executive powers to persuade Australians the app would be effective, and our privacy protected, but we needed that follow up parliamentary scrutiny to contest these claims,” she says.

“Unlike the US, we don’t have an enshrined Bill of Rights, nor a litigious culture, but we expect our parliament to act in our best interests and engage in open and robust debate.

“The parliament’s response to the COVIDSafe app and the proposed Identity Matching Laws show that when experts and the community more broadly engage with the parliament, it is possible to strike a better balance when it comes to the privacy impacts of these technologies.”

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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