If the face fits, film it

The Sunday Times - - OPINION -

THE march of tech­nol­ogy is de­scribed as re­lent­less. For older Aus­tralians try­ing to keep pace, it feels more like a sprint than a march. But put to the ser­vice of mankind, it is won­drous. We can use ro­bot­ics for life-sav­ing sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures, build smart cars that can avoid col­li­sions, find new en­ergy so­lu­tions. And use fa­cial recog­ni­tion to iden­tify ter­ror­ists.

Pre­dictably, not ev­ery­one is en­thralled at the prospect of the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment stor­ing our fa­cial bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion on a na­tional data­base, as an­nounced by Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull af­ter a spe­cial COAG meet­ing this week.

Pri­vacy ad­vo­cates say we are sur­ren­der­ing our civil lib­er­ties with too much haste and not enough cau­tion.

The Sun­day Times be­lieves we should pro­ceed with cau­tion, but pro­ceed nev­er­the­less. We favour the ‘no re­grets’ ap­proach ar­tic­u­lated by NSW Premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian af­ter the COAG meet­ing.

“At the end of the day what mat­ters most is pub­lic safety,” she said. “We don't want to look back trag­i­cally and say ‘what could we have done to pre­vent some­thing from hap­pen­ing’.”

If peo­ple are wor­ried about the myr­iad of com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions from such tech­nol­ogy, it’s not just com­ing — it’s al­ready here. Ap­ple’s new iPhone 10 boasts fa­cial recog­ni­tion as an al­ter­na­tive to pass-codes and thumb prints. And at a KFC store in the east­ern Chi­nese city of Hangzhou you can pay for your meal by sim­ply smil­ing.

It comes down to per­sonal choice whether peo­ple are happy for busi­nesses to hold their bio­met­ric data. We tend to over-share as it is. Many young West Aus­tralians are happy to let night­clubs record their driver’s li­cence de­tails and take their photo. How se­cure is that data?

Al­low­ing Aus­tralian law en­force­ment agen­cies to record and match fa­cial im­ages at air­ports so that known or sus­pected ter­ror­ists can be in­stantly iden­ti­fied and thwarted is a no-brainer. It’s an­other smart in­stru­ment in the counter-ter­ror­ism tool­box. It will help in some sit­u­a­tions, but not all.

“This is not ac­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion, photo ID in­for­ma­tion that is not cur­rently avail­able,” Mr Turn­bull pointed out. “We are talk­ing about bring­ing to­gether es­sen­tially Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment photo IDs, pass­ports, visas and so forth, to­gether with driv­ers’ li­cences . . .What we have not been do­ing is ac­cess­ing them in a mod­ern 21st cen­tury way. It shouldn’t take seven days to be able to ver­ify someone’s iden­tity or seek to match a pho­to­graph of some­body that is a per­son of in­ter­est. It should be able to be done seam­lessly in real time.”

The move makes abun­dant sense. We ac­cept there have to be iron­clad safe­guards to pre­vent mis­use of in­for­ma­tion. And se­cu­rity must be im­pen­e­tra­ble to keep out hack­ers.

Fu­ture gov­ern­ments might be tempted to ex­pand the use of such sur­veil­lance. But they risk fury should they do so with­out the en­dorse­ment of par­lia­ment and the pub­lic’s knowl­edge. The Ed­ward Snow­den rev­e­la­tions caused enor­mous em­bar­rass­ment to the US, with just cause. It’s per­fectly rea­son­able, though, to use our 21st cen­tury smarts to stymie the bar­barism of ji­hadists who want to recre­ate the dark ages. A neg­li­gi­ble loss of pri­vacy is a small price to pay. Re­spon­si­bil­ity for ed­i­to­rial com­ment is taken by the edi­tor, Michael Beach, 50 Hasler Road, Os­borne Park, WA 6017. Postal ad­dress: PO Box 1769, Os­borne Park DC, WA 6916.

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