Commonwealth plans to incorporate state government drivers’ licence photos in its facial recognition systems used by law enforcement is a “massive privacy overreach,” digital rights advocates have said.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday that he plans to ask state and territory governments to hand over the licence photo database of all citizens, which will then be used in the federal $18.5 million National Facial Biometric Matching Capability.
The photos, along with passport and citizenship photos, will be used by law enforcement agencies to identify suspects and criminals in real time in public places like airports and shopping centres using CCTV footage.
The plan is a dramatic expansion of the government’s facial recognition capability, which already draws from passport and visa application photos held in databases by the Commonwealth.
“We believe that if we bring together drivers licences then we can start to build up a national system that will enable us then to more quickly identify people, particularly to be able to identify people that are suspected of, or involved in, terrorist activities,” Mr Turnbull said.
“Imagine the power of being able to identify a person suspected of being involved in terror activities walking into an airport, or walking into a sporting stadium,” he said.
“This is a fundamentally vital piece of technology that takes an additional level of protection, as we are committed to keeping Australians safe.”
“We will use every technology and every technique to do this.”
Mr Turnbull said he was confident that the states would agree to hand over the data in the name of national security at the upcoming Council of Australian Governments meeting on terrorism.
AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said the scheme would combine existing capabilities under the law with existing technology, making the process of drawing on licence photos automated, rather than by-request.
“This is about getting identity verification as quickly as we possibly can,” Mr Colvin said.“The technology is available, we already have access to the information, this is bringing together the technology and information.”
Justice Minister Michael Keenan said law enforcement agencies could already request access to states photo databases, but that this typically takes more than a week. The new system would be almost instantaneous.
But privacy and digital rights groups have already raised concerns about the scheme, pointing to security risks of the large database, and the implications for the privacy of innocent Australians. Similar schemes in the US have failed, they say.
The facial recognition expansion is “bloody worrying”, says Digital Rights Watch chairman Tim Singleton Norton.
“It’s a massive overreach of citizens’ privacy, and it’s unnecessary. We’ve seen the government pushing more and more for building these databases under the guise of national security without really showing any proof as to why we need them,” Mr Norton told InnovationAus.com.
“They say it’s useful in countering terrorism but haven’t shown the proof of that. The need to encroach into innocent civilians’ private lives in order to tackle the few that are trying to harm us is not a sum that adds up for us.”
The vulnerability of such a database containing highly sensitive information is the first and foremost concern with the scheme, he said, especially in light with recent public sector digital fails, including robo-debt and last year’s census.
“We’ve seen massive data breaches with Centrelink and Medicare. Governments have proven time and time again they can’t be trusted to manage and protect this data,” he said.
Mr Turnbull himself admitted that databases like this are always vulnerable to attack.
“You can’t allow the risk of hacking to prevent you from doing everything you can to keep Australians safe. The alternative is to not use data at all,” Mr Turnbull told ABC radio’s AM program.
The facial recognition scheme utilising drivers’ licences was also slammed by Electronic Frontiers Australia.
“This is yet another proposal that will enable warrantless surveillance of the entire population, without either a clear cost justification or clear evidence that facial recognition is capable of prospectively preventing terrorism, or other serious crimes, thereby continuing the theme of treating all citizens as suspects,” EFA executive officer Jon Lawrence said in a blog post.
“EFA considers this to be just the latest incremental and probably irreversible increase in temperature to the pot that’s slowly boiling the privacy rights of Australians.”
Concerns have also been raised with the effectiveness of a facial recognition scheme to fight terrorism and crime. In the US, 18 states currently give the FBI access to drivers licence photos, with about half of all Americans in the database now.
Georgetown Law’s Centre for Privacy and Technology said this has created a “virtual line-up of their state residents” that treats everyone like suspects.
“In this line-up, it’s not a human that points to the suspect – it’s an algorithm,” the organisation said in its 2016 report.
A US House of Representatives hearing last year was also told that the facial recognition algorithm was wrong about 15 percent of the time, and was more likely to misidentify African-Americans.
Mr Norton said the scheme in Australia will likely feature the same biases and racial discrimination.
“The algorithms themselves proved to be racist, because of how they were implemented. The machines learn from humans and work on the precedent of how law enforcement has done it previously, with racial, social and economic profiling,” he said.
Mr Lawrence said the results in the US indicate that this is “far from a mature technology”.
But Mr Keenan brushed off concerns over the accuracy of this technology at a press conference on Wednesday, saying misidentification was “highly unlikely”.
“You could make the same inference for any way we identify people. The biometric way is far more accurate than other ways we do it,” he said.
In the state of New York, facial recognition technology has led to over 4000 arrests for identity theft or fraud, rather than terrorism offences.
The Georgetown Law report found that the use of facial recognition technology in the US was “out of control”.
“We know very little about these systems. We don’t know how they impact privacy and civil liberties. We don’t know how they address accuracy problems. And we don’t know how any of these systems affect racial and ethnic minorities,” the report said.
The organisation also found that the switch to using drivers licence and information from law-abiding citizens was “unprecedented and highly problematic”.
Advocates are also concerned about the possible implications to the privacy rights of everyday Australians, with Mr Norton saying the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument isn’t sufficient for forming policy.
“We want law enforcement to be empowered to do their jobs, but not at the expense of private lives of everyone that may be caught up in the droves of data,” he said.
The US House of Representatives committee also heard of the “chilling effect” this technology can have.
“[Facial recognition] can be used in a way that chills free speech and free association by targeting people attending certain political meetings, protests, churches or other types of places in the public,” committee chair Jason Chaffetz said.
“Innocent people could bear the burden of being falsely accused, including the implication of having federal investigators turn up at their home or business,” US Government Accountability Office director Diana Maurer added.
Mr Turnbull addressed these privacy concerns by pointing to the large amounts of information that Australians voluntary provide to social media platforms like Facebook.
“People put an enormous amount of their own data up in the public domain already. There has never been more data on citizens than there is today, and the vast bulk of it is actually in the private sector,” Mr Turnbull said.
“Safety and privacy go hand in hand. We have very, very rigorous privacy protections in terms of the use of government data and government-held biometric data.”
The proposal is unlikely to meet any opposition from Labor, with opposition leader Bill Shorten tentatively throwing support behind the scheme.
“We think the biometric technology can be a real addition in terms of keeping Australians safe,” Mr Shorten told the press on Wednesday.
“We’ll wait to see what the final details from government are, but Labor has a bipartisan approach to good ideas of keeping Australians safe, and we’ll keep working with government when they’ve got sensible ideas for keeping Australians safe,” he said.