Privacy concerns voiced over photo database link to real-time surveillance.
Queensland’s privacy commissioner has said any proposal to link a national database of photographs to public surveillance in real time could open the door to “more scary surveillance”.
The commissioner, Philip Green, praised the federal Attorney General Department’s handling of moves towards a new national regime around access to driver licence data, including photos, which he said would enhance privacy by deterring identity theft.
The licence photos held by states will add to a commonwealth pool of images, including from immigration screening, to be accessed by police instantly for automated face-matching in a wide range of criminal investigations.
But he warned that public CCTV surveillance using facial recognition, including in sporting venues, veered well beyond the groundwork laid by governments to justify use of a beefed-up national identity database. Linking the database to public surveillance in real time was an unprecedented step demanding a “proper debate” about public appetite for the security “trade-off”, and formal analysis of privacy impacts and other risks.
It risked “mass surveillance, screening and predictive policing” where “false positives” from automated facial recognition could have dire consequences.
“Unfortunately, based on the surveys I don’t think people will understand the real risks in that false positives or false arrests arena – it will just be when someone’s shot innocently,” he told Guardian Australia.
He said crowd surveillance via facial recognition scans to identify suspected terrorists was far from becoming a reality, despite political leaders touting the idea in recent days.
The president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, Michael Cope, said the usefulness of the licence database to criminal investigations “must be questioned” given records of inaccuracy with facial recognition elsewhere.
“In the US the algorithm used to search their equivalent data base has produced false results on 15% of occasions,” Cope said.
On Wednesday, Malcolm Turnbull said facial recognition technology matching against driver licences could soon be used in public places such as shopping malls to identify suspected terrorists in real time.
“It’s simply a question of using technology, being proactive, not being complacent, relentless in my determination to keep Australians safe,” the prime minister said.
Turnbull retreated from this rhetoric on Thursday, when leaders at a Council of Australian Governments meeting agreed on sharing licence data, which police will access in real time to check for identity matches via facial recognition in a wide range of criminal investigations.
“It doesn’t involve surveillance, or indeed mass surveillance,” Turnbull said of the agreement.
However, the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said she backed crowd surveillance using facial recognition and the identity database during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April.
“This is about stopping any prospect of terrorism, and it is ensuring that thousands of people are safe at the games, so I support whatever measures are needed – surveillance and added security,” she said.
A proposal, also supported by NSW and Victoria, would allow Australian federal police officers to scan crowds for matches with the national identity database – which includes licences and passport information – if there is a credible threat or after an attack.
Cope said the agreement between the states and the commonwealth was “another example of the now familiar process where after each terror incident our governments hack away at our rights to privacy and due process”.
“It is inevitable that once this database is created other bureaucrats will want access to it,” he said.
Green said the talk of facial scanning in public for terrorists using a national identity database was jumping the gun considerably.
“They’ve been in public kite-flying solutions which need proper debate and proper consideration, and getting the balance right between what’s the terrorism threat risk, what’s the trade-off,” Green said.
The federal Attorney-General’s Department had made it clear all agencies would conduct privacy impact assessments before any such changes, he said. This had been done for driver licence sharing, but not for “hooking that up in real time to the entire CCTV network”, Green said.
This would create the “sort of serious intelligence on everybody” seen in dystopic scenarios in films such as The Circle and Minority Report.
“Who’s going to monitor it and what’s the evidence that any of the [terrorist] incidents so far would have ever been solved by that?” Green said. “Frankly, the more power you give police, the more likely it is to be abused at some level.
“Another caveat is, do we trust the federal government, given they’ve had about five failures in the last couple of years on delivery of this sort of infrastructure – should we trust them?”
The federal and state legislation to enable licence data sharing is yet to be seen.
“But we think it will be drafted broadly to allow further development and ‘scope creep’, and the more abhorrent uses of the technology might creep in without much parliamentary scrutiny,” Green said. “That’s the issue.”