New facial recognition database a civil liberties nightmare

October 26, 2018
Facial recognition technology will have significant repercussions for democracy.

ABC’s Foreign Correspondent recently discussed China’s Social Credit system where, in the name of creating a safer society and enhancing national security, China has begun rolling out facial recognition technology. This technology is being linked up in an unprecedented way so that almost every minute of the day-to-day movements of all citizens can be monitored.

Facial recognition technology has enabled the Chinese government to create a system of social credit whereby those who behave well, eat well, avoid bad habits, exercise sufficiently and pay their bills on time are rewarded with cheap hotel deals, easy access to loans, access to employment prospects and the like.

Those with a low social credit score, on the other hand, can be subject to virtual home detention, with credit cards being cut off, access to social media being restricted, families being blacklisted if a person is seen as acting against the interests of the government and, in some cases, disappearances being reported.

If this sounds too much like science fiction, or you think that nothing like this could be contemplated in a liberal democracy like Australia, think again.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) last year agreed to the establishment of a National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, which will have access to all drivers’ licences in Australia, as well as visa, passport and citizenship photos. This huge biometric database will be available to state and federal security and law enforcement agencies.

The rationale for this very significant increase in the capacity for real-time government surveillance of most Australian residents is, of course, “to better protect us”. 

However, NSW Council of Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) fears that this development in mass surveillance capacity will, over time, have significant implications on the nature of our society and the robustness of our democracy. It will have a real impact on our privacy and other liberties that we have traditionally held dear.

These impacts are acknowledged by political leaders, but are seen as a necessary price to pay for safety and national security.

At this stage there is little detail as to how this increased surveillance capacity will work and what will be done to protect this huge trove of our
personal biometric data from hacking or misuse.

NSWCCL has joined with other civil liberties and privacy organisations to express deep concern at this new and significant expansion of surveillance capacity. It looks to us like a step too far.

A comprehensive national facial database is simply incompatible with a free society.

In an October 6, 2017 media release, NSWCCL joined with allied organisations to “condemn the decision by [COAG] to provide all images from state and territory drivers’ licence databases to the federal National Facial Biometric Matching Capability”.

The point was made that the creation of such a comprehensive national facial database is an unnecessary and disproportionate invasion of the privacy rights of all Australians. It is the foundation for suspicion-less, warrantless mass surveillance and is fundamentally incompatible with a free and open society.

NSWCCL president Stephen Blanks said: “The community does not yet understand 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.

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

Australian Privacy Foundation chair David Vaile said: “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.

“We’ve already seen calls for ‘scope creep’ to cover welfare enforcement, and there’s every reason to expect this capability will come to be used to identify people with unpaid fines and other minor issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.”

Digital Rights Watch chair Tim Singleton Norton said: “This is a gross overreach into the privacy of everyday Australian citizens, and will have huge impacts on the trust in government to manage this database.

“What is urgently needed is proper consultation, evidence and debate - in parliament, with civil society and the public themselves.”

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties vice-president Angus Murray said: “The protection of the Australian community is fundamentally important — however, this also includes the protection of Australians’ civil liberties and privacy.

“[COAG’s] agreement, and this continued scope creep, clearly highlights the need for the introduction of a tort of serious invasions of privacy and enforceable human rights legislation.

“It is incumbent on the parliament to ensure that [COAG’s] agreement on the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability is demonstrably necessary, adequate and proportionate, and subject to proper public scrutiny.”

Electronic Frontiers Australia executive officer Jon Lawrence said the proposal amounted to “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,” Lawrence said.

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

These organisations have called on all Australians concerned about the national facial recognition database to contact state/territory and federal parliamentarians to tell them that this initiative is an example of government overreach that is simply unacceptable.

I join them in this call.

[Pauline Wright is a civil libertarian, NSW Council of Civil Liberties vice president and a Law Council of Australia executive member. This is an extract from a talk Wright gave at Politics in the Pub in Sydney on September 20.]

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