In a move that seems as if it is straight out of the pages of George Orwell’s dystopian society book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Australian government has announced their newest weapon in their national security arsenal, facial recognition software. They have just announced they will spend 18.5 million AUD on their new program, The National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, shortened to “The Capability”. Though facial recognition technology is not new, the approach the government is taking certainly is.
Facial recognition software has been around for decades, and is actually a useful tool in identifying criminals. Problems occur when people are not criminals. The government is building a national database of faces. Instead of filling the database only with people of interest, Oz is using driver’s license photos, passport photos, still images from closed circuit TV videos, and even police body cameras. They claim these moves are being made in the interest of national security as well as helping to combat identity theft and organized crime.
Not surprisingly, this announcement is alarming to privacy advocates, and should be alarming to the general public. There are two major complaints the advocates have about this database. The first one is that a person’s face can be analyzed legally at a distance without the person ever knowing. If you were making a documentary style movie, and you taped someone on the street, a person would need to sign a release before they could be shown in that movie. They also find the lack of discussion about this topic to be disturbing.
The second issue is one of Accuracy. In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation accepts that 20% of the images could cause a false identification of a person. That is a big percentage, if you take in to account that any charges levied against someone using this technology could potentially change someone’s life. Unlike fingerprints, facial recognition software can be fooled with the right tools.
Though the government has stated the Australian Federal Police, DFAT, and the Immigration Department would be the “primary users” of the database, as time goes on, other groups may get the option the access it for lawful use. At this point, it is not known how much of “The Capability” is completed, but with this announcement, you can imagine it will be sooner than later.
Given this new information, it will be interesting to see the reaction of UN Privacy Chief, Joseph Cannataci. He has already been very vocal about privacy concerns around the world, even in pointing out one of the worst offenders, the UK. He recently stated that privacy there was worse than anything George Orwell could of imagined. If the UK is the worst, then the merry old land of Oz is in a tight race.