Smile! Govt facial recognition capability comes to AU

Federal and state government has signed a new national facial recognition database into existence, amidst howls of disapproval from all the expected corners.

Details of the AU$18.5 million plan, known as the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, were announced last week.

In essence the program will see law enforcement agencies trying to match photographs of unknown persons with images from government records, that is passports and driving licences. When enacted, the scheme will affect approximately 19 million Australians over the age of 16.

Michael Keenan, Minister for Justice (and the minister assisting the Prime Minister on counter-terrorism) made the announcement on Wednesday, stressing, of course, the sheer practicality of the proposed system:

“Now currently, when [authorities] have to identify people through their face…it can take over a week to get the information they need. We’re doing it in a 1950s way, essentially, when we should be doing it in a 21st century way,” Keenan said.

“So what we have developed is a new system that will allow that to happen instantly.”

Known also as ‘National Driver Licence Facial Recognition Solution’, the exchange of identity information will be managed through ‘Identity Matching Services’, comprising of:

  • Document Verification Service (DVS)
  • Face Matching Services, which includes the Face Verification Service (FVS), the Face Identification Service (FIS), the One Person One Licence Service (OPOLS), the Face Recognition Analysis Utility Service
  • Identity Data Sharing Service

When up and running ‘the capability’ (as it’s rather unsettlingly being called) will enable facial images of an individual to be compared against images held on the government record. Whoever wants to make the match must first have either the consent of the individual concerned or another legislative basis or authority to collect and use the information.

Cost-wise, it’s expected to sting taxpayers in the realm of AU$2.3m a year. According to Open Government Asia, the Commonwealth will fund 50 percent of these costs.

“The other 50 percent will be shared by the states and territories, on a population basis (New South Wales – AU$364,000; Victoria – AU$264,000; Queensland – AU$202,000; Western Australia – AU$122,00; South Australia – AU$79,000; Tasmania – AU$30,000; Australian Capital Territory – AU$20,000; Northern Territory – AU$14,700)”.

Identification capability has certainly been a growing preoccupation for the government in recent times, most conspicuously with the amendments made last August to the Migration Amendment Bill of  2015 (which introduced broad discretionary powers for several Australian agencies to collect citizen and non-citizen data) and the launch of the ‘Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism’ in August.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was quick to address concerns that the new scheme represented government overreach.

“To be quite clear about this, this is not accessing information, photo I.D. information that is not currently available,” Turnbull said.

“We’re talking about bringing together essentially federal government photo IDs, passports, visas and so forth, together with drivers licences. These are all available to law enforcement agencies now and have been for many years, if not for generations. But what we have not been doing is accessing them in a modern 21st Century way.”

Turnbull noted that verifying a person’s identity or to seek to match a photograph of a person of interest shouldn’t take a week. “It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time. That is what this cooperation and that agreement you have seen us just sign, will enable us to do.”

Rather than being thrilling new technology Turnbull said, it’s just the intelligent application of existing tools.

The scheme is “a good example of Chief Ministers and Premiers focusing on the tools we have,” he said, “seeing what’s working and seeing how we can apply them, enhance them to do more to keep us safe.”

Less heartening: the PM confirmed private security operators could request access to the database and that access would be governed by law enforcement agencies.

Not everyone’s pleased of course.

The Australian Privacy Foundation immediately described the scheme as a ‘gross overreach into the privacy of everyday Australian citizens’.

“This government has proven it is blind and deaf to privacy and personal information security threats,” said David Vaile, Chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation.

“Make no mistake – this database will affect all Australians, even the most conscientious and law-abiding. It will likely generate massive ‘false positive’ lists that will flood our very effective police and security services with useless distractions.”

And the issue of false positives is a legitimate concern. The FBI reportedly has a 20 percent error rate for its facial recognition-based identification program.

“Current research shows that the latest facial technology is still plagued with error rates and inaccuracies,” confirmed lecturer in Criminology Dr Adam Molnar at Deakin University.

“In Australia there is no clear indication what authorities are willing to accept as an error rate when using facial recognition technology. Regulation of the collection and sharing of biometric identifiers in Australia is subject to executive ministerial discretion. Any other regulation of the capability is left to weak privacy legislation (which many of the agencies involved in the capability are exempt from) in the absence of a formal bill of rights.”

Still, the Australian Government is hardly on the bleeding edge here.

Facial recognition technology already has traction overseas and is gaining momentum. The above-mentioned FBI scheme currently has a facial recognition database of more than 400 million photos, including state driver’s licenses.

In the commercial sector, Apple has announced that its new iPhone X, due to ship next month, will use facial recognition to unlock the device (as well as to power its delightfully pointless face-tracking animated emoji functionality).

And of course, Facebook has been doing this for a while. The social media juggernaut has got a current database of 1.2 billion ‘recognised’ faces with names attached.

So what’s the takeaway here?

At this stage the two greatest areas for concern seem to be security and misuse. What happens if the system is hacked? If a passport or credit card number is stolen they are easily replaced. Not so with the ole kisser. While the government has vowed to use robust security measures to guard the information, you can take that with a grain of salt. The recent Census and Centrelink problems prove as much.

As for misuse, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ someone once said, and that goes double here.

But with a disrupted terrorist attack in July, ‘one of the most sophisticated plots that has ever been attempted on Australian soil,’ according to the Deputy Commissioner, the new scheme seems unlikely to lose momentum any time soon.

Love it or hate it, the government’s new facial recognition capabilities are, for now, here to stay.

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