Instant facial recognition software used for counter-terrorism could be used on the general public one day if the rules around the use of the software keep changing, a surveillance expert warns.
The ACT Government had this same concern with new counter-terrorism measures introduced to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) today — though it has still signed on to the changes.
The territory’s Attorney-General, Gordon Ramsay, said the ACT Government would continue negotiations on the biometric capability of the facial recognition software, known as The Capability, which matches faces from CCTV footage to passports — and with them, all of a person’s associated data.
COAG has agreed to add drivers’ licences to that system, and to speed up the week-long process, making The Capability instant.
But the ACT has asked for assurances that data will only be used outside of counter-terrorism when the Capability returns a perfect match.
It was the only jurisdiction that raised privacy concerns when The Capability was introduced in 2015.
“One of the things that we would always be looking to is the access and the way that information can be used, they will be part of the ongoing negotiations,” Mr Ramsay said.
‘Before we know it…’: worries over feature creep
But surveillance expert Professor Katina Michael pointed to an established trend of technology creeping up in scope and said The Capability would be no exception.
She expected the system to slide down a slippery slope of privacy erosion, eventually being used for petty crime, civil cases and a whole range of purposes unrelated to terrorism.
“It’s a farce,” she said.
“Before we know it’ll be used for breath tests and speeding, it will be used to open a bank account … licences are our primary ID — so does that mean everywhere we’ve been using them for identity, all the clubs and pubs, will have access to it?
“Even car insurance — [people will think] ‘we are using it for drivers’ licences, maybe we should also use it for third-party compulsory insurance. And then we need it for health insurance’.”
Your face ‘may end up on some third-party selling list’
Ms Michael was equally concerned about systematic errors causing potential mistaken identities and leading to people being wrongly accused or suspected of crime.
“It’s not going to take long for these systems to be hacked, no matter what security you have in place and once it’s hacked, that’s it — everyone’s facial images will end up on some third-party selling list and possibly on the internet for accessibility.”
“Yeah, people put photos on Facebook, but not in that kind of systematic, calculated way.
“Some Australian citizens are going to be completely freaked out.”
Fergus Hanson, head of cyber policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australians needed to think about where the “guard rails” around privacy should be.
“I think we can all agree that it’s useful to use systems like this to track down terrorists or to track down murderers, [but] what happens when we start having more minor crimes being prosecuted and people arrested using this same technology?” Mr Hanson said.
“Would we be OK for example with the Government using that technology to track down someone who hadn’t paid a parking fine?
“DNA testing, originally that was a very niche capability that developed, and now it’s run of the mill technology that you would run for lots of different crime types.”
Mr Hanson said the public needs to consider who ought to own personal data, and how it might be used in the future.
“You don’t have to go very far back in history to appreciate why privacy is important, and the constraints that need to be there around states in terms of how they exercise their authority,” he said.
At the COAG National Security Summit, the states and territories also agreed to give police powers to hold terrorism suspects for up to a fortnight without charge.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said “it is more perhaps in sorrow than in anger” that the heightened terrorism threats facing Australia had sparked the need for harsher measures.
“Nonetheless, all jurisdictions have signed up today and it reflects the need for a joined up and collective response to difficult issues,” Mr Barr said.
“But to do so within the framework of a Human Rights Act that we have in the ACT has required us to work closely with the Commonwealth to achieve the outcome.
“And I want to acknowledge that that has been achieved, and that’s an important thing for residents in the ACT.”