Two Facial Recognition Technology Bills Are Introduced in Australia
The Australian government made a big push recently to normalize and even institutionalize the use of facial recognition technology. The plan received so much attention when it was made public, including vocal protest from rights groups, that elements within the Australian government almost immediately put the brakes on the whole thing — for now, at least.
Here’s a guide to the recent history of two facial recognition bills — or “identity-matching bills” — as proposed by the Australian government.
What Would Australia’s Identity-Matching Bill Do?
There are two bills in question. One is called “Identity-Matching Services Bill 2019” and one is called “Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-Matching Services) Bill 2019.”
Through a combination of these bills, the Australian government seeks to create a national database of “face data” that can be shared between states and the federal government. The facial recognition data in question includes items like driver’s license photos, passport photos and CCTV camera footage. The database would include identity information for everybody who recently interacted with public services, everybody who has such an interaction afterward and, potentially, real-time data gathered from traffic and surveillance cameras.
The implications of this plan are far-reaching. It opens the door for greater sharing of sensitive identity data between the government and financial and telecommunications companies, for example.
It’s a way to, potentially, reduce identity-related crimes. But it could also be used to identify and track unknown persons who have no reason to be of any interest to authorities.
Facial recognition could also be used to safeguard polling places from misuse. Unfortunately, it holds almost equal potential for misuse — including a new tool in the ongoing and targeted disenfranchisement of minority voters in many parts of the world.
The Department of Home Affairs in Australia has even proposed using such a database to regulate access to, of all things, pornography. Users would submit to having their face data transmitted either as a one-time verification or for every “instance.” When asked, authorities declined to specify which.
Is Australia’s Facial Recognition Bill ‘Mass Surveillance’?
There are some other good reasons for such a database, too, including the prospect of identifying natural disaster victims more quickly. But it’s also good to take the opposition seriously when they warn this could be a slippery slope toward “mass surveillance.”
Likely because of the backlash from civil rights and privacy groups, an intelligence and security committee within Australia’s parliament has ordered the government to rewrite the proposed law from the ground up to. In the words of the left-leaning MPs of the committee, the new drafts must refocus on “privacy,” “transparency” and “robust safeguards.” This temporary reprieve came as welcome news to many.
The civil rights groups on record include The Human Rights Law Centre, whose public statement called the proposed bills “manifestly dangerous” and “insufficient” in proving why such a system is justified and whether it stands on solid legal footing. The HRLC claims the bills were written without “any apparent regard” for the sensitivity of the privacy and civil rights issues they would raise.
Can Anybody Be Trusted with Facial Recognition Software?
Many modern smartphones read fingerprints or take new photos of the user’s face on every unlock. This is the new normal. And even the technology behind facial recognition sounds fairly benign. In fact, it uses some of the same data points optometrists do when they dial in your prescription for eyeglasses, such as pupillary distance, which is the distance from the center of the pupil of one eye to the other.
But Australia’s bills didn’t prove unpopular because of the technology involved — they proved unpopular because of the scope and applications.
There is a generally low level of accountability for police forces in many parts of the world, including many local police stations in America. The fact that so many people don’t appear willing to trust our institutions with facial recognition software is a symptom of a larger problem: The public has very little leverage over police forces already, and too few tools at their disposal for rooting out institutional corruption, prejudice and persecution.
It is not farfetched to say that facial recognition technology in unaccountable hands could lead to acts of retaliation by police or other authority figures. It could also further imbalance the power dynamic between police forces and the public.
Australia’s Facial Recognition Bill Goes Back to the Drawing Board
Before receiving orders to rewrite the proposals, the Australian government defended the original bills as written, deeming them “necessary” new tools for cutting down on identity theft and improving the effectiveness of law enforcement.
It’s still an open question as to whether facial recognition solves more problems than it potentially raises. This is the reason why individual cities and states across the world are beginning to debate and even outlaw the use of facial recognition technology by the government or police forces. Australia now has questions of its own to answer about the balance between privacy and public safety.