Face biometric backlash begins

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government’s new facial recognition capabilities are set to be made available to the private sector in what digital rights group have branded a “complete betrayal” of civil liberties.

The facial recognition technology would also be used by law enforcement and other agencies for purposes far beyond the initial justification of counter-terrorism measures. Private companies can apply to use the facial recognition software in select circumstances to compare an identity photo with the government’s database of photos.

The database would also form a cornerstone of government’s plans for a biometric-based digital identity for authenticating people online.

Malcolm Turnbull: Has dismissed initial privacy concerns about the facial recognition plans

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled plans last week to expand the Commonwealth’s facial recognition system – dubbed “The Capability” – to include driver licence photographs as an anti-terrorism measure.

All state and territory government leaders quickly agreed to the scheme in a special Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting last Thursday that lasted less than two and a half hours.

Under the new scheme, state drivers’ licence photos will be included in the Commonwealth’s facial recognition system, which would be made available to law enforcement agencies to find the identity of an individual.

Mr Turnbull has clarified that this would not be used on live CCTV footage, but instead would be utilised in venues like airports to check images of people law enforcement wants to know the identity of using biometric analysis with images including drivers licence, passport and visa photos.

According to the government, the process is already available to agencies now, but is done manually and can take more than a week. The new agreement will make this process automated and instantaneous through a newly-created hub.

The COAG agreement states that this would “make it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to identify people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity, and prevent the use of fake or stolen identities”.

There are two main services at play: the Face Verification Service and the Face Identification Service.

The Face Verification Service compares an existing facial image of an individual with a facial image held by the government like a drivers licence photo. The matching is done on a “one to one” process in an effort to verify an individual’s identity, “often” with the consent of the individual.

The COAG agreement confirms that this Face Verification Service would be opened up to the private sector.

It states that this would be for organisations that are “required or authorised by a law to require the identification of an individual or to verify the identity of an individual”, and they would need to have a “reasonable need” to use the government service.

The Face Identification Service, in contrast, offers “one to many” identification, using facial recognition software to compare a facial image to a database of facial images, which would now include drivers licences, passports and visas.

An agency can make a request if it has a “legislative basis or authority” to do so, and would then receive a “gallery of the highest matching facial images”. The government said this service would be restricted to law enforcement agencies or “national security related functions”.

The Face Identification Service will not be made available to the private sector at this point, the government said.

Incorporating drivers’ licences and building the systems to allow for the automatic sharing of this information across states would cost the Commonwealth $21 million over four years, including $14 million in initial establishment costs.

This would be paid entirely by the federal government, while the annual operating and maintenance costs of $2.3 million would be split between the Commonwealth and the states.

The Commonwealth would contribute 50 per cent of the operational costs, while the other jurisdictions would be contribute on a population basis, with New South Wales chipping in $364,000 per year, and Victoria dipping in $264,000 annually.

While the large expansion to the country’s facial recognition technology was justified by its ability to fight terrorism, the program has a wide remit, far beyond this.

The technology would be used for the purposes of preventing identity theft, general law enforcement (for crimes carrying a maximum jail sentence of at least three years), national security, protective security and community safety, including the identification of missing people.

A number of privacy and civil liberty groups have banded together to oppose the move, claiming it is “incompatible with a free society”. These groups include the Australian Privacy Foundation, Digital Rights Watch, Liberty Victoria and Electronic Frontiers Australia.

Concerns with the scheme range from privacy implications to the security of the data. The expansion of the facial recognition scheme is a “complete betrayal of a fundamental civil liberty of all Australians”, Electronic Frontiers Australia executive officer Jon Lawrence.

“If implemented it will ensure that the presumption of innocence no longer has any effective meaning in this country,” Mr Lawrence said.

“Such an untargeted, mass surveillance database is just the latest attempt by governments to categorise everyone as potential suspects, not citizens.”

The expanded scheme represents a “gross overreach into the privacy of everyday Australian citizens”, Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton warned, while NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Stephen Blanks said the general public needs to be educated on the implications of such a service.

“The community does not yet understand the real implications of facial recognition technology and how fundamentally the real implications of facial recognition technology and how fundamentally the way people can access public spaces like airports, sporting facilities and shopping centres will change,” Mr Blanks said.

“When they understand the realities of this technology, people will be very concerned.”

Australian Privacy Foundation chair David Vaile said the technology would turn all Australian citizens into suspects.

“This government has proven it is blind and deaf to privacy and personal information security threats. Make no mistake – this database will affect all Australians, even the most conscientious and law-abiding,” Mr Vaile said.

“It will likely generate massive ‘false positive’ lists that will flood our very effective police and security services with useless distractions.”

In contrast to these concerns, the COAG agreement claims that the facial recognition scheme will actually improve privacy by cracking down on identity theft.

Mr Turnbull has dismissed these concerns and denied that the new scheme is “mass surveillance”, while Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said it was a “luxury” to consider civil liberties when considering the matter.

“There will be those who are in that civil liberties community, who it is perhaps their job to run a commentary and to be cautious about these things. But I just think that getting tied up in some of those arguments, that’s not a luxury that’s available to first ministers and leaders of governments across Australia,” Mr Andrews said.

“We have to do things, we have to make these changes and therefore it’s not difficult It does mean curtailing the rights and freedoms of a small number of people. But if that keeps many tens, hundreds of thousands more safe from terror, well that’s not a difficult choice at all.”

The ACT government was the only jurisdiction to raise concerns with the scheme, but still signed up to it on a conditional basis.

While the Opposition has offered bipartisan support for the government’s anti-terror efforts, the Greens slammed the move, with Senator Nick McKim labelling them an “unjustified tramping of people’s basic liberties”.

“Creating a massive database of people’s photographs is a privacy invasion that creates a honeypot for hackers,” Senator McKim said.

“Australians would have little faith in the government’s capacity to keep their information safe given the census fail and leaks of Medicare numbers. The wider use of facial recognition software will affect every Australian’s privacy,” he said.

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