Victoria launches home quarantine trial using facial recognition tech


Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Victorian government has launched a trial of home quarantine for returning residents using facial recognition and geolocation technology, the latest in a number of states to embark on similar pilots.

National Cabinet recently agreed on the use of facial recognition and geolocation technology to assist with home quarantine trials, with a number of states now running pilot programs under the scheme.

Health Minister Martin Foley announced the Victorian trial on Tuesday morning, which will see Victorians currently isolating at home to voluntarily take part. They will be required to download a smartphone app and take a photo of themselves upon request to prove their identity and that they are isolating where they are meant to be.

Facial recognition for Victorian home quarantine trial

Users of the app will only have five minutes to send the photo before an alert is passed on to health officials, Mr Foley said, a significantly shorter window than similar apps in other states.

“This will assist Victorians coming back from both overseas and internationally sooner rather than later as part of the national plan,” Mr Foley told the media on Tuesday.

“Participants will receive advice via the smartphone as to their obligation at random times to provide a selfie back to the public health teams, should that not be responded to in a period of time, follow-up calls or visits are made so as to make sure that the person is where they should be.

“It will be an easy way of making sure that people are all doing the right thing, protecting themselves and protecting the community.”

Similar home quarantine programs using facial recognition technology are currently taking place in South Australia and New South Wales, and the tech has been in use in Western Australia for several months.

Earlier this month the New South Wales government announced that an app featuring facial recognition and geolocation technology would be used as part of a pilot of seven-day home quarantine for fully vaccinated arrivals to the state.

The trial, which kicked off this week, will involve about 175 people selected on a risk-assessment framework, and may include NSW residents, non-Australian residents and Qantas aircrew using the app across four weeks.

South Australia has been conducting its own pilot using its Home Quarantine SA app, with users contacted at random by the app and required to provide proof of their location via a selfie within 15 minutes. If this isn’t done, then the user will receive a phone call from the health department and then potentially a check from the police.

The app has been lauded as a “great innovation” by SA Premier Steven Marshall, who flagged a significant expansion of its use.

There are significant privacy concerns around the use of these apps and the surveillance of individuals.

Deakin University senior lecturer and Australian Privacy Foundation vice-chair Dr Monqiue Mann said the use of technology for this purpose is troubling but may be the best option.

“I can see that this app serves a purpose and what are the alternatives? We’ve got hotel quarantine, we’ve got ankle bracelets, but I’m not sure either of those are necessarily better options, and I think people will be more inclined to use an app like this than have an ankle bracelet on,” Dr Mann told InnovationAus.

“Under circumstances where it is necessary, proportionate and the least invasive form, and serving a legitimate objective, then it may be suitable and appropriate, but we need to ensure there are appropriate safeguards, particularly around the regulation of facial recognition.”

But Dr Mann said she is concerned about potential scope creep around the use of technology for these forms of surveillance.

“I’m really concerned about this normalisation of surveillance and surveillance technology under the cover of COVID, where people in society become used to or accept that there are all of these intrusions into their life,” she said.

“We have all of these tech solutions to problems presented by COVID. It’s surveillance solutionism. The pandemic in particular is really just facilitating this type of surveillance solutionism. Everything is solved with the solution of surveillance – it’s really problematic. Where does it go next?”

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