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Facial recognition tech perpetuates injustice

  • 06 October 2017


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.

In 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