Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s Prime Minister, is leading governmental effort to set up a nationwide facial recognition program. Source: Reuters

Australia moves towards mass surveillance with facial recognition database

AUSTRALIAN authorities announced on Thursday plans to combat terrorism and crime through the use of facial recognition technology and data sharing frameworks between several governmental agencies, in a move that has led an outcry from rights groups.

Several government agencies signed an intergovernmental agreement on what is known as the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, a platform that will allow law enforcement agencies to rely on “passport, visa, citizenship and driver license images” to identify potential threats and terrorists.

“Close cooperation and interoperability between Commonwealth and state agencies is critical to Australia’s ability to counter terrorism,” said the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), an intergovernmental forum that includes ministers from the federal, territorial and local levels, in a statement on its website.

Facial recognition has become popular among device makers, governments and law enforcements. Source: Shutterstock

“[The Capability] will help to protect Australians by making it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to identify people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity, and prevent the use of fake or stolen identities.”

The new framework will open up a database containing drivers’ license photos that will form the backbone of a facial recognition database. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that the main goal of the formation of the network was to enable law enforcement officers to “keep Australians safe” from terrorist attacks.

Australia has been a target of a handful of terror attacks, including a foiled July attempt to blow up a plane departing from Sydney. According to an op-ed on ABC News, a total of five Australians have been the victims of domestic terrorism in the last twenty years.

“More Australians have died at the hands of police (lawfully or unlawfully) in 10 years (50 at least from 2006 to 2015) or from domestic violence in just two years (more than 318 in 2014 and 2015) than from terrorist attacks in Australia in the last 20 years,” wrote Professor Greg Austin, an international security expert at the University of New South Wales, in The Conversation last year.


Sydney was the target of a foiled terrorist plot last July. Source: Shutterstock

Agreement was unanimous from leaders all across Australia’s states and territories, and if passed, the law could affect 19 million Australians aged 16-years and above.

“Imagine the power of being able to identify, to be looking out for and identify a person suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, walking into an airport, walking into a sporting stadium,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters Wednesday, as reported by CNN.

The announcement has attracted criticism from rights groups all over the country, many of whom said that the framework is in violation with the civil liberties of the Australian people.

David Vaile, the chairman of Australian Privacy Foundation, told Tech Wire Asia that Australians were particularly vulnerable to such encroachments of their human rights as the country has no formal framework that allows citizens to hold government to account or sue them for infringements of their privacy.

Vaile said that citizens in the US and Europe had provisions in their constitutions and laws that provided avenues of recourse for those who have found their privacy breached by governments or companies, however no such right is enshrined in Australia. Those laws in other countries act as limitations on the extraordinary powers police have, and have developed over decades of investigations into the importance of privacy.

Facial recognition does not work well in crowds as it’s not a mature technology yet. Source: Shutterstock

“[Those laws] are targeted and often based on getting a warrant from a judge,” he said.

“One of the big question about [the new policy] is whether it creates a mass surveillance system that is untargeted, warrantless and suspicionless,” he said in a phone interview.

He explained that many people were first happy to provide their information as drivers given the caveat that the information be used correctly, however authorities have slowly but surely been spreading the scope of such information. The data that is being shared across the new framework is not isolated to just the images of citizens, but is bundled with five other distinct programs that are cross-connected.

“If you look at the agreement the COAG put out as the basis for the scheme, you’ll see automated face recognition capabilities, and allowing state information to federal, even when it’s been collected under a different law or purpose,” he 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 centers will change,” said Angus Murray, vice president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, in a joint statement with advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA).

The COAG paper also noted that the laws are “not legally enforceable”, meaning that everyday people will not be able to hold anyone accountable for any potential breaches, whether they be from the government or businesses.

george brandis

Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speak during a media conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Source: Reuters

Vaile went on to explain how the expansion of the surveillance powers of law enforcement could adversely affect ordinary, innocent people due to the nascence of facial recognition technology. He said that the technology might work well on a one-to-one basis (meaning that a program is trying to match identities based on a singular person) but that falls apart once the technology is applied on a mass scale.

The results could be the arrest of innocent people who may be unfairly implicated through the poor development of the technology. “It’s still pixels at this point,” he said.

Furthermore the implementation of such technology could prove to be a “honeypot” for everyone from law enforcement officials, who want access to the information, as well as hackers and identity thefts, and the framework in many ways reflects the naivete of a government that isn’t quite looking at the whole picture. The pooling of resources is resulting in a “data lake” that could become the target of many different hackers who want access to the information in that database.

“Nobody can say ‘you cant trust me with this data’ anymore,” Vaile said, citing the views of the well-respected cryptographer, Bruce Schneier. “It’s almost impossible to keep out a motivated hacker.”