Queensland Government officials have announced that facial recognition technology introduced for security during the 2018 Commonwealth Games will remain in place indefinitely, but won’t say what future use they have in mind for the biometric system.
Civil liberty campaigners say the refusal to release plans for the installed software amounts to a ‘disturbing development in mass surveillance’, with privacy advocates concerned about how the technology will be used in conjunction with the new national facial recognition program.
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It was announced almost one year ago that biometric identification technology would be deployed on the Gold Coast public transport network – including trains, trams and buses – to identify potential ‘terror suspects’ before interrupting the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The Australian Federal Police, in collaboration with Gold Coast City Council, drove the project in what was the most far reaching public use of facial recognition technology to date, which they have praised as ‘the best way to test’ the digital network due to the city’s high-level use of CCTV cameras.
Queensland Privacy Commissioner Philip Green stated at the time the proposal would represent an “unprecedented example of predictive policing, with parallels perhaps only in China and Russia.”
In an announcement this week, Queensland Police Minister Mark Ryan revealed the technology will stay in place past the games, but would not say when police would use such technology:
“I’m not going to get into the particular technology that police may or may not have right now,” Mr. Ryan said.
But police would only access the database if you were doing something wrong.
If you’re going to the football on Friday night … and you’re not going to break the law, then there’s no reason for the police to access the database.”
Mr Ryan would not say whether police would use the technology to scan every patron attending such events:
“I’m not trying to be clever or tricky … there is some capability that the police may or may not have, which I can’t get into for obvious security reasons.”
The move follows plans for all Australian states and territories plan to pass laws to allow matching of facial biometrics information. Federal laws are also planned allowing cross-jurisdictional access to the database of drivers’ licenses and passport photos.
Queensland rushed its laws through in time for the Commonwealth Games.
On October 1st 2017, it was confirmed that the Australian government would use recent global events as a catalyst to further push for an even tougher overhaul of current ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation at a special Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Canberra.
In the meeting, state leaders and ministers unanimously approved a counter-terrorism package that “enhances” public safety by increasing surveillance of private citizens – including utilising new national facial recognition capabilities – removing longstanding rights for those suspected of terrorist involvement.
The council would soon sign the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreement which details how a Facial Identity Service (FIS) could be used in Australia.
Strongly based on the FBI model in the United States, the Identity Matching Services Bill and its Explanatory Memoranda prescribe what data can be collected, shared and processed, by who and for what purposes.
Despite the government saying it is an essential tool for national security, Australia’s leading privacy groups – including the Australian Privacy Foundation, Digital Rights Watch, Queensland & NSW Councils for Civil Liberties and more – say the legislation is unprecedented in the scope and volume of information it could potentially capture on ordinary Australians:
“This decision is nothing less than a complete betrayal of a fundamental civil liberty of all Australians. If implemented, it will ensure that the presumption of innocence no longer has any effective meaning in this country.
Such an untargeted, mass surveillance database is just the latest attempt by governments to categorise everyone as potential suspects, not citizens.”
– Jon Lawrence, Executive Officer of Electronic Frontiers Australia.
Many others have also suggested the legislation will aggregate photographs and information from all Australian drivers’ licences in a central database. This dramatically increases the possibility that people’s private information will be shared in ways they have not anticipated and in circumstances where it may not be justified.
The FIS will allow a range of government authorities to submit a photograph of a person to a centralised hub. That photograph would then be compared against multiple facial images of people held in state, territory and federal databases – including those containing drivers’ licences and passport details.
The hub then sends back information and possible matches for manual review by the requesting agency.
The memorandum, released by Minister Peter Dutton’s office, acknowledged the FIS “has increased privacy implications for individuals”.
But the extent to which it has lowered traditional privacy boundaries has left some concerned after numerous concerning examples involving the technology overseas.
Critics say that similar technology is already being used in China and has had serious consequences in regards to human rights protection.
“We have seen ways in which this type of technology is misused, particularly in China in places like Xinjiang where it is used to track social activists and to monitor entire ethnic groups such as the Uighur’s, which are a Muslim minority in China,” a spokesperson told Nine News.
For the last few years, police forces around China have invested heavily to build the world’s largest video surveillance and facial recognition system, incorporating more than 170 million cameras so far.
In a December test of the dragnet in Guiyang, a city of 4.3 million people in southwest China, a BBC reporter was flagged for arrest within seven minutes of police adding his headshot to a facial recognition database.
And in the southeast city of Nanchang, Chinese police say that last month they arrested a suspect wanted for “economic crimes” after a facial recognition system spotted him at a pop concert amidst 60,000 other attendees.
So far, lawmakers worldwide have been slow to codify parameters for the technology. Even the United Kingdom, which has experimented with facial recognition tools in law enforcement since the 1990s, lacks a regulatory framework for it.
These types of stories, combined with reports that computer vision recognizes some types of images more accurately than humans, makes it seem like the Panopticon has officially arrived.
In Australia, currently on a per capita basis, the Australian government is more than 18 times likely to intercept telephone calls than the United States government.
Even more disturbing, these government agencies accessed citizen data records an astonishing 250,000 times in 2012 without even recording why and when these intercepts had taken place.
Queensland’s Privacy Commissioner Philip Green – who slammed Commonwealth Games plans for facial recognition to be used for security – said though he was not worried yet, governments have been making small steps towards using such technology:
“Using facial matching technology and algorithms to identify people is another step and certainly that isn’t widely in use at the moment, he said.
We’d like to see if that kind of technology is introduced the people are told, there is a safety and security benefit in people being told that.”
If there’s an upside to the unease around facial recognition technology – both when it works and when it doesn’t – it’s that people intuitively understand the technology’s privacy implications either way.
People on the street understand how creepy face recognition is in a way they don’t really get it for cookies on your browser or other technologies. They understand this.
That visceral connection may help privacy advocates encourage oversight to ensure that the technology is used responsibly. But for the public, promises of a better-regulated tomorrow don’t help protect people today.
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Let’s face it, we’ll be no safer with a national recognition database: efa.org.au
Turnbull dismisses privacy concerns in asking for a national identification database: huffingtonpost.com.au
Premier Hodgman on ‘anti-terrorism’ changes: “This is the New World Order”: tottnews.com
Queensland announces trials to replace public transport cards with facial recognition: tottnews.com
Facial recognition to replace passports in radical security overhaul at Australian airports: tottnews.com
Commonwealth Games – QLD Privacy Commissioner slams facial recognition plans as ‘unprecedented’: tottnews.com
Australian schools are now implementing biometric identification technology: tottnews.com
The Fall of Australia – An overview of new ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation: tottnews.com
Erosion of Privacy in Australia – Basic facts you need to know: tottnews.com
Close up: the government’s facial recognition plan could reveal more than just your identity: privacy.org.au
Government’s facial recognition scheme could be abused, lawyers warn: abc.net.au
Federal facial recognition bill clashes with ACT law: canberratimes.com.au
Facial Recognition Tech Is Creepy When It Works And Creepier When It Doesn’t: wired.com