Fa­cial im­age match­ing sys­tem risks 'chilling ef­fect' on free­doms, rights groups say

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Christo­pher Knaus

Civil rights groups have warned a vast, pow­er­ful sys­tem al­low­ing the near re­al­time match­ing of cit­i­zens’ fa­cial im­ages risks a “pro­found chilling ef­fect” on protest and dis­sent.

The tech­nol­ogy – known in short­hand as “the ca­pa­bil­ity” – col­lects and pools fa­cial im­agery from var­i­ous state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment sources, in­clud­ing driver’s li­cences, pass­ports and visas.

The bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion can then rapidly – al­most in real time – be com­pared with other sources, such as CCTV footage, to match iden­ti­ties.

The sys­tem, chiefly con­trolled by the fed­eral De­part­ment of Home Af­fairs, is de­signed to give in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity agen­cies a pow­er­ful tool to de­ter iden­tity crime, and quickly iden­tify ter­ror and crime sus­pects.

But it has prompted se­ri­ous con­cern among aca­demics, hu­man rights groups and pri­vacy ex­perts. The sys­tem sweeps up and pro­cesses cit­i­zens’ sen­si­tive bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion re­gard­less of whether they have com­mit­ted or are sus­pected of an of­fence.

Crit­ics have warned of a “very sub­stan­tial ero­sion of pri­vacy”, func­tion creep and the sys­tem’s po­ten­tial use for mass gen­eral sur­veil­lance. There are also fears about the level of ac­cess given to pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions and the leg­is­la­tion’s loose word­ing, which could al­low it to be used for pur­poses other than re­lated to ter­ror­ism or se­ri­ous crime.

States agreed to the con­cept at a Coun­cil of Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ments meet­ing last year, though it is yet to be leg­is­lated by fed­eral par­lia­ment.

New South Wales is one of the states in favour of the ca­pa­bil­ity, and is leg­is­lat­ing to al­low state driver’s li­cences to be shared with the com­mon­wealth and in­vest­ing $52.6m over four years to fa­cil­i­tate its roll­out.

A NSW par­lia­men­tary in­quiry on Wed­nes­day heard con­cerns that the sys­tem could have a chilling ef­fect on po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, protest and civil dis­sent.

The NSW Coun­cil for Civil Lib­er­ties deputy pres­i­dent, Les­ley Lynch, said the sys­tem’s abil­ity for near real-time iden­tity match­ing made it a “big stakes” trans­for­ma­tion. She said it could al­low mass gen­eral sur­veil­lance of the pub­lic, in­clud­ing dur­ing large gath­er­ings.

“It’s hard to be­lieve that it won’t lead to pres­sure, in the not too dis­tant fu­ture, for this ca­pa­bil­ity to be used in many con­texts, and for many rea­sons,” Lynch said.

“This brings with it a real threat to anonymity. But the more con­cern­ing di­men­sion is the at­ten­dant chilling ef­fect on free­doms of po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion, the right to protest and the right to dis­sent. We think these po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions should be of con­cern to us all.”

The NSW gov­ern­ment has pre­vi­ously de­nied the sys­tem would be used for mass pub­lic sur­veil­lance, and said its in­ten­tion was for more tar­geted en­force­ment of iden­tity crime.

Home af­fairs de­part­ment as­sis­tant sec­re­tary, An­drew Rice, said iden­tity crime was im­pact­ing on one in four Aus­tralians in their life­time. The sys­tem, he said, was cru­cial in com­bat­ting such crime.

“Iden­tity crime causes sub­stan­tial harm to the econ­omy and in­di­vid­u­als each year and is a key en­abler of ter­ror­ism and se­ri­ous and or­gan­ised crime,” he said.

The NSW’s pri­vacy com­mis­sioner, Saman­tha Gavel, said the sys­tem had been de­signed with “ro­bust” pri­vacy safe­guards. Gavel said it had been de­vel­oped in con­sul­ta­tion with state and fed­eral pri­vacy com­mis­sion­ers, and she ex­pressed con­fi­dence in the pro­tec­tions lim­it­ing ac­cess by pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions.

“I un­der­stand that en­ti­ties will only have ac­cess to the sys­tem through par­tic­i­pa­tion agree­ments and that there are some sig­nif­i­cant re­straints on pri­vate sec­tor ac­cess to the sys­tem,” Gavel said.

Part of the sys­tem, the face ver­i­fi­ca­tion ser­vice, is al­ready op­er­a­tional. It al­lows a “one-to-one, im­age­based ver­i­fi­ca­tion ser­vice” al­low­ing one per­son’s photo to be matched against an im­age on one of their gov­ern­ment records.

A sec­ond part to the sys­tem, known as the face iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ser­vice, will al­low “a one-to-many, im­age-based iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ser­vice” that matches a photo of an anony­mous per­son against mul­ti­ple gov­ern­ment records, to help es­tab­lish their iden­tity.

The database will be ac­ces­si­ble to fed­eral, state and ter­ri­tory gov­ern­ments through a cen­tral hub con­nect­ing the var­i­ous pho­to­graphic iden­tity data­bases.

Pho­to­graph: Dan Peled/AAP

The tech­nol­ogy col­lects and pools fa­cial im­agery from sources in­clud­ing driver’s li­cences and pass­ports.

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