The Victorian government’s first public trial of its new facial recognition technology has been “diabolical” and was “absolutely destined to fail”, according to the Smart Energy Council chief executive officer.
Victoria quietly launched a trial of its new smartphone-based facial recognition technology through the solar rebate scheme at the start of July.
The state has been developing the service in line with the federal government’s Trusted Digital Identity Framework and is attempting to have it accredited against this, making it part of the federated ecosystem of identity providers.
But the technology has so far proved troublesome, with nearly half of all attempts to use the service failing and some users opting to not pursue the rebate at all because of privacy and security concerns.
The Smart Energy Council is calling for the trial to be immediately halted, while digital rights groups are pushing for a review into the rapid expansion of facial recognition technologies to deliver government services.
Smart Energy Council chief executive John Grimes said there was no prior warning that the new technology would be trialled through the solar rebates scheme, and that program isn’t the right fit for a trial of the emerging technology.
“It’s a case study in how not to introduce a new technology to the general public. The solar program is probably the worst program you could’ve chosen – it’s skewed towards older people and really low income people,” Mr Grimes told InnovationAus.com.
“To introduce the technology without explaining it and without a whole change management program behind it, it was absolutely destined to fail.”
Mr Grimes said people are now opting to not pursue a solar rebate to avoid the process and having to hand over the sensitive biometrics data, while others that have struggled with the process have missed out on the rebate, which closed after just 60 hours.
“It’s an appalling process and it has disenfranchised people. It’s put people badly offside. It’s any wonder people are asking questions about privacy and the need for this,” Mr Grimes said.
“People are saying, ‘yes, I might get a $2000 rebate but I’m not prepared to send you my facial scan details to be held in a database and do who knows what with it’. So they don’t participate,” he said.
“At a time when we see international countries like China using facial recognition technology to scan and control entire populations, there is no confidence that this technology is going to be used for good and not for ill.”
As part of the trial, the smartphone facial recognition service replaced the traditional 100-point paper-based identity check for individuals to prove their eligibility for the solar rebate.
Users are asked to scan their passport and driver’s licence and then their own face to compare it to these documents. If the process works, they are then given an “electronic identity credential” linked to their smartphone which then allows them to quickly verify their identity in the future using a code sent to their phone.
But the service has faltered in the first weeks of the trial, with about 40 percent of attempts to use facial recognition failing, according to Solar Victoria CEO Stan Kpran.
“The visual ID that we’re using, which is an online system, is a highly efficient system but only about 60 percent of people are getting through that. We’ve put some online guidance up and that’s already had an effect in the first few days,” Mr Kpran told RenewEconomy.
As part of the trial, users are required to attempt to use the facial recognition process multiple times before they are given the option of using the traditional 100-point method.
“If you get knocked out then you’ve lost your chance. The rebate was open for 60 hours and if you didn’t get in during that little window then you’re stuffed,” Mr Grimes said.
Mr Grimes said he has talked to one customer who was unable to use the service as she has to wear glasses, but is not wearing the glasses in her passport photo. She struggled to follow the instructions on the facial recognition app without her glasses.
“She can’t see anything, she can barely see the phone. She’s never taken a selfie in her life and she’s trying to get her head into a little square box – it’s no wonder she was rejected. It’s just diabolical,” he said.
Service Victoria, which is administering the scheme, has already issued three updates to the application in the first two weeks of the trial, improving the instructions and adding the ability for users to abandon attempts sooner in the process.
Solar Victoria’s website acknowledges many of the issues that users have faced when trying to use the facial recognition service, saying that “sometimes you just need to try again”.
Mr Grimes has met with the Victorian government and raised concerns over the facial recognition technology, but said there was no indication that changes would be made.
“I’ve met with the minister and raised concerns around the use of facial recognition technology and I’ve been told the government is not making any changes. They’re dug in,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be rolled out across a whole bunch of Victorian government programs. They’re on a hiding to nothing. It’s a hair brain idea.”
Digital Rights Watch has also called for an urgent review into the rapid expansion in the use of facial recognition technology in Victoria and around the country.
“The simple fact is that this technology has been proven to generate false positives, complications and other errors. We should not be attempting to use cheap technological fixes to complex social systems,” Digital Rights Watch board member Lilly Ryan said.
“There is a severe lack of strong oversight mechanisms and general enforcement for human rights and civil liberties in this country, which results in the public being understandably wary about giving government more information in the first place.
“When individuals enter into an agreement with a government agency that includes their personal information, they should have the right to understand, be informed, and have a say in where that information is held and what it is being used for.
“Above all else, they should be given a genuine, informed choice about whether they give away their privacy rights – not coerced into handing it over in return for government services.”
Victoria will expand the facial recognition trials to other government services in the future, and is hoping to have it approved as a “trusted identity provider” by the federal government.
It follows controversy earlier this year over the use of facial recognition to check attendance in independent schools in the state. Victoria moved to ban the use of this technology, requiring schools to obtain explicit approval from parents, students and the Department of Education to do so.
The state has signed up to the federal government’s attempts to create a national facial recognition system and database, despite raising a series of concerns with the new powers handed to the home affairs department.