Facial Recognition is a tool for law enforcement – we need to accept that

Is this an issue of Law Enforcement vs Privacy?

The Federal Government has reached agreement with the States to create a national database of Photo IDs to enable faster identification of people with the headline grabbing goal of helping to fight terrorism.

Today the Federal Government has access to millions of photos from the database of Passports issued to around half the population.  In addition to that each state has a database of Drivers licences covering most of the adult population.

What was agreed today was that those databases be combined to allow authorities to take advantage of new and advancing facial recognition technologies.

Depending on who you listen to this has different applications.  One could be to identify quickly persons of interest within our airports, not just as they approach passport control.  Another is to fast track passport control and immigration by removing the barriers and automating the process.

There are also some more local examples, like the Football stadium, where a potential terrorist might be identified before they are able to commit any act of harm.

However, this announcement has been met by grave privacy concerns within some parts of the media.  Unfortunately those reports are jumping straight to the extreme negative view without even considering the advantages.

Problematically for the general public, its a balance each of us need to weigh up before you can truly form a view on this issue.

Do we trust our Government with this data?

Kinda problematic if you don’t, because they already have it.   All they are doing here is making it bigger, covering more Aussies.    If they’re going to start recognising faces using technology – shouldn’t they just get all the faces anyway?

Is this the thin edge of the wedge?

Yep. No doubt. The use of “terrorism” as a “reason” to do this is a bad call from the Governments perspective.  It would be better if it was discussed openly with a view to the future – how might law enforcement be able to use this in the future.

So you don’t want “Big Brother” watching?  Bit late for all that?  There are cameras on every police car that scan licence plates so the Highway officers can come and get you if you’ve got no rego or outstanding warrants.

If the police want to find you, they can – they will use public transport, motorway e-tag, police plate scanning and frankly any measure possible.  What this new database seeks to do is speed that up.

Technology today isn’t ready yet to just scan every face and set of red flags, but it’s only months away to be fair.

The Extreme:

If people are on the terror watch list, and just one of them doesn’t have a passport but has a drivers licence – don’t we want the police to know if they are walking into the Grand Final with a backpack?

The Ridiculous:

Won’t this end up with police tracking down people who haven’t paid a $50 parking fine?  Well, firstly, that’s a cheap fine you lucky duck.  But seriously, get a grip, police aren’t responsible for parking fines, and if they were it’s because you have 100 outstanding.

How bout paying the fine and not having to worry about that?

The fear factor:

A point has been made in some reporting that Police in QLD have been reported as using public transport data to track down witnesses to crimes and seek them out for information or statements.

For some people they rightly fear being involved in criminal investigations.  But if you saw something, don’t you want to help solve the crime?

If you’re not the suspect you do have the right to say “I’m sorry, I don’t wish to talk about it”.  However, if the Police do have information (Facial recognition) that proves you were there, they can compel you to give a statement.

You can of course say “I saw nothing” but you are likely to be in line for a charge of perverting the course of justice – is that what you want?

If there is a genuine fear for your safety with regards to giving a statement or needing to give evidence, don’t you think the police will do everything in their power to protect you?  And by the way, how common is witness interference in Australia?

This is a genuine fear for some – I get it.  But in my view, It is far outweighed by the benefits.

I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to be worried about.

Spot on.

Detractors, and privacy advocates hate this defence, but it’s very hard to cut through.  Its a simple fact of life.

If you plan on doing something wrong – here’s a tip, wear a balaclava:)

Compared to today?

You know there are people watching security cameras every minute of the day right now.  Do you trust the bloke at the Footy Stadium who’s job it is to watch the cameras?  You don’t know him.  He knows you’re there.  He just can’t possibly recognise all the people at every moment.  At best he can be on the look out for one or two specific people.

We are being videoed today.  We’re just not processing the video quickly enough for it to be of any benefit until after the fact.

Safeguards

Safeguards are the very thing that are required in any legislation like this.  It’s right to call for them, it’s right to insist on them.

But just saying “we need safeguards” helps no one.

So let me help.  The best safeguard we can have here is a Sunset Clause.   Lets lobby to ensure that in three years this legislation or access is reviewed.  Any negative situations that come from the access within that time will count against the authorities.

The Upshot

With criminals, let alone terrorists so commonly one or many steps ahead of law enforcement, don’t we want to give law enforcement the shot in the arm it needs to get closer?

Yep, There will be problems.  One example sighted is the AFP breach of the metadata laws – the AFP had to admit publicly they had accessed a journalists metadata without consent.

The thing is, the AFP were the ones who came out and admitted this.  Their own internal processes identified it, and acknowledged it.  The officer in question didn’t know they needed to get consent – an error of judgement and training.

“This was human error. It should not have occurred. The AFP takes it very seriously and we take full responsibility for breaching the Act,” Was what AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said.

It’s not like we have rouge officers out there looking to search the database to find their partners lover.   And if we did, do you seriously think they would just get away with it and it would be swept under the carpet.

Most Australians will rightly question why the Government wants or needs this access.  They will also soon realise it’s a law enforcement tool, not a Big Brother camera in the sky.  The Police, Border Force and whoever else you want to name simply don’t care if you’re in Westfield Shopping Center for an hour longer than you told your wife you were going to be, Nor do they care that you have an outstanding parking ticket.

We need to be vigilant about how these tools are used, and hold them to account for the circumstances outside of general expectations.  And we need to be sure their access can be reviewed – that’s the safeguard for us all.

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Tech

Trev produces two of the most popular technology podcasts in Australia, Your Tech Life and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He hosts a nightly radio show on Talking Lifestyle, 8pm Monday to Friday in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, appears on over 50 radio stations across Australia weekly, and is the Tech Expert on Channel 9’s Today Show and A Current Affair. Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave.

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