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Facial recognition tech perpetuates injustice



Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has pushed state premiers to hand over their drivers' licence database in order to enhance facial recognition systems, particularly at airports. COAG has agreed, with the ACT insisting that only perfect matches be used for non-counterterrorism purposes. It is hard to find this reassuring.

Faces on screensIn something out of a British spy movie, and sounding as sinister, this biometric matching is called in some circles The Capability. It was introduced in 2015, using passport data. People who have recently travelled overseas might recall using SmartGates.

It is worth recalling that data retention has also taken effect, despite sustained protest from legal and tech experts. A home-affairs super-department was created for Peter Dutton only months ago. The thrust is clear: expand powers in the name of security even without consensus on merit.

Apart from adding millions of images from drivers' licences to the database, the Turnbull government has also proposed detaining terrorism suspects without charge for up to two weeks. It is a monumental break from the pre-charge regime which allows detention of an additional seven days after the first day, via court process.

As terror law expert Dr Nicola McGarrity says: 'To the best of my knowledge, and based on previous inquiries, there are no situations in which it would have been necessary to hold someone in detention for more than those eight days.' No strong case has been made either about harvesting biometrics.

There is something shocking about our primary form of ID being captured like this, without the courtesy of having been asked, without having committed the slightest infraction.

In places where facial recognition has been deployed, such as the UK, US and Canada, it has not prevented mass murders. Some perpetrators were already known to police, a few for domestic violence. They were more likely to be locals. Their methods were incredibly low-tech — an ironic counterpoint to the massive resources funneled toward sophisticated surveillance software.


"In western countries with vast inequities, particularly an over-incarceration of blacks and Indigenous, the sample base for algorithms may be skewed from the start."


This is not to argue that identification isn't critical to crime investigations, but it bears emphasising that it is only one part. Police still must build their case on evidence, and be able to link that evidence to a person. It is reasonable to be sceptical about claims that automatic facial recognition makes better cops and safer citizens.

That has not been the experience for minorities. Studies of facial recognition software developed in various countries show that there are racial differences in accuracy. In the US, blacks are more likely to be misidentified than other races — errors that could be life-shattering and devastating for communities of colour.

These inaccuracies do not necessarily mean that the tool or its developers are racist. But they do demonstrate how such technologies can perpetuate existing injustices. In western countries with vast inequities, particularly an over-incarceration of blacks and Indigenous, the sample base for algorithms may be skewed from the start.

The availability of sensitive data also lends itself to authoritarian excess. In Maryland, for example, facial recognition software was used to identify those involved in protests following the death of a black man in police custody.

We ought to have learned that oppressive practices that hurt minorities first and the most, affect everyone eventually — even if differently. Privacy advocates have pointed out the possibility of such high-value systems being maliciously breached or disrupted, or even used inappropriately by those with official access.

Electronic Frontier Foundation analyst Jeremy Malcolm points out: 'When it's a password database that's breached, you can just change your password. When it's facial recognition, you can't change your face.' Australian Privacy Foundation chair David Vaile describes it as a potential lifelong liability.

Surveillance scholars have also pointed out the risk of feature creep, in which technologies are used for purposes beyond initial intent. Today, an argument is being made about terrorism. But databases or indices, once they exist, prove malleable to other contexts or agendas, such as civil suits and minor crimes or even entry into public buildings.

Are we really prepared for all this? How confident could anyone be that a future government would be less restrained, more benign when it is equipped with powerful capabilities like this? Do we even know if the current one has not got more in store, given how successfully it has been able to implement other policies?



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Malcolm Turnbull, facial recognition, data retention, privacy, racism



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Existing comments

Racial differences in accuracy are a teething problem. The concept of facial recognition in law enforcement is good in principle. Even better would be a GPS-like system where sensors in lamp posts, mobile phone towers, CCTVs, speed cameras and other places (perhaps even satellites) could sense and record the DNA profiles of passers-by. The next time someone is snatched from her pram by a stranger in a shopping complex, or bashed in an alley behind a nightclub, or run over by a hit-and-run on a highway, the police will simply interrogate the DNA profile of the victim on their computer to see whose DNA profiles were tracking the victim’s profile at the relevant time. And if we all have to drink something that makes our DNA visible to the scrutinising gadgets, I’m sure the mother who was momentarily distracted from her child in the pram will be grateful that the gadgetry prevented something from happening.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 October 2017  

Please pause and reflect - though I fear the moment has already passed, if we the people allow such implementation to continue, then we have truly strolled through the gates of hell. It makes no sense to me that we don't care - tolerance is now a clear and present danger. Our descendants will be right to hate us for condemning them to such legacy.

Lach Donn | 08 October 2017  

The law has forever struggled with identification. This will be a mightily good solution but comes at a loss of citizen privacy. The UK was the first to roll out the technology and it’s far more advanced than we can imagine. It will be impossible for people to overstay Visa’s for instance. Cameras will be linked at every transport hub. In absense of the modern terror threat across western countries, it is hard to imagine we would have got here so quickly. A good friend of mine saw a demonstration at Scotland Yard where they picked up a thief who had stolen a bicycle some months prior. He stole the bike in the dark and they only had a particular shot of his face. They got a match on a tube station and within a minute, plain clothes detectives are assigned and standing beside him as they wait for a train. Sure enough it was him and they broke a larger syndicate. How many international criminals live in Australia ? Problem solved with sharing of data between countries. I live in inner city and have just installed High Definition facial recognition cameras in the home. Built by Nest owned by google. We are headed towards state controlled totalitarian states and I want to understand what this technology can do. Imagine if Hitler had this technology or Stalin or Rocket-man. Before long, every public space will be under video surveillance.

Patrick | 09 October 2017  

On Insiders, Sunday, Daniel Andrews gave a powerful endorsement of and reason for this change. I trust him.

Frank | 09 October 2017  

Well despite the obvious drawbacks there is an ongoing demand in the light of Today if law and order are to be maintained in a western (incl Australian) democracy. we are too much blinded if we are unable to understand the fast onset of Artificial Intelligence and what changes that will bring to everyday life and its multi-faceted needs of peace and justice to say nothing of love!

Tony Knight | 09 October 2017  

Maybe, Roy, we should also put hidden cameras and listening devices into confessionals ? Or bedrooms ? After all, if you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to fear.

Ginger Meggs | 09 October 2017  

This is truly frightening, especially when we have to rely on the likes of Dutton to ensure the integrity of the system itself and that the data is not mis-used. Sadly with someone like Dutton in charge there can be no guarantees on either count!!

Peter Casey | 09 October 2017  

This is Version 2.0 of the failed Australia Card of the 1980's.Funny how the pollies just don't get the message! While I and all my family members have passports.We assume we are on some data base, but we accept that situation as the price of having the right to travel overseas to countries where you have to carry an ID card at all times and show it on demand . Here is Australia we are used to using our Driver's Licence as a means of ID at the Bank for example. Again we accept that as necessary to reduce Identity Fraud. However to surrender our licence ID to the Australian Government without our permission, to somehow reduce the risk of a terrorist attack is a step too far. In my opinion there is more chance of being run over by a bus then being attacked by a terrorist . Terrorist attacks have occurred in Europe where people are required to carry ID, so to my way of thinking George Orwell will be very pleased. Big Brother is watching you!

Gavin | 09 October 2017  

The Pope, the Bishop's, Muhammad and Migration written by William Kilpatrick in Ignatius Insight e-letter ( the US equivalent of ES) of 09/10 is worth reading. Should anyone take this advice, it would also to of value to read The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray published by Bloomsbury Books a couple of months ago. Then, a much better picture of what will threaten our children and grandchildren will make the use of identification through our drivers' licences or any other form of citizen identification look minor.

john frawley | 10 October 2017  

Are you able to give us a link to that article John ? I’d be interested in reading it.

Ginger Meggs | 11 October 2017  

Good morning, GM. Simply google Ignatius Insight. This will give you a home page . On the right hand side there are a number of boxes, one of which invites you to subscribe to Ignatius Insight e-letter. Subscription is free and requires only email address. You will find many interesting articles and commentary. Let me know how you go !

john frawley | 11 October 2017  

I'm relying on powers that be to screw this up.

Jill | 17 October 2017  

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