The Australian Government Has Started Using Facial Recognition Technology, And Hardly Anyone Is Talking About It

It's called 'The Capability', and it's as frightening as it sounds.

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Quietly and seamlessly, one of the biggest advances in surveillance technology is being rolled out by law enforcement agencies across Australia. It is a facial recognition system called “The Capability”, and is pretty much as creepy as it sounds.

At a cost of $18.5 million, The Capability — which launched here in September — is a verification service that will cross-reference 100 million images of our faces. That’s just over four images of every Australian, including stills from CCTV footage as well as photos from drivers’ licenses, passports and other identification documents that the agencies have access to.

Combined with recent upgrades to make the definition of CCTV cameras in New South Wales one thousand times better – the stills they used to produce were too grainy to make a match — it’s going to be pretty hard to keep your face safe from identification.

It’s not particularly strange that Australia has adopted this technology – the UK and the US rolled out similar technology in 2014. What is strange is that there has been almost no public discussion about it.

Some privacy advocates have raised concerns, including Patrick Gray — cyber security journalist and commentator — who has called the new technology out for being “creepy”. Dr Adam Henschke, a National Security Research Fellow at ANU, also published some worrying analysis via the St James Ethics Centre blog: “A lack of oversight could also lead to information being used in ways that are both irresponsible and harmful to innocent people,” he wrote.

But with the exceptions of the ABC and Crikey, there hasn’t been any real coverage from the major news outlets, and politicians on all sides have also stayed quiet.

In fact — most scarily of all — it seems like no one really cares.

Surveillance Is Already Here

So why has the announcement been met with such a tepid response?

One possible explanation is that that privacy advocates are overreacting to a technology that’s going to benefit law enforcement agencies, with pros that outweigh the cons. Entrepeneur Professor Brian Lovell played down concerns, telling the ABC that the level of surveillance facilitated by The Capability is really no different to small town life. “If you’re in a small town, like a small village, everybody recognises everyone else and everyone seems to get on quite well,” he says, “and when a stranger comes into town, they can’t sort of rob all the houses ’cause everybody notices them.”

This is a fair point — until you realise that not everybody in the village had a photographic memory, nor were they members of a law enforcement agency with the power to charge you with criminal offences.

Which brings us to an alternate explanation that is far more worrying: that we are already so used to living in a surveillance society that we’re not really concerned about losing more of our privacy. If nothing bad has happened yet, it’s hard to conceive of any real consequences.

As Patrick Gray told Junkee, “[These techniques have] become entrenched. It’s the perfect example of the boiling frog and slippery slope metaphors. In this case, however, the frog is already cooked — and we’re most of the way down the slope.”

How The Capability Slid Under The Radar

On September 9, Lateline ran a program about The Capability, explaining what it is and how it could be used. The program consulted privacy advocates concerned with the new technology, as well as the Victorian, Queensland and Northern Territory police forces who were already utilising it.

The same day the program was set to air, the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan issued a coincidentally well-timed press release publically introducing The Capability. It explained that the technology would help prevent everything from identity crime to terrorism.

“Terrorists and other criminals that steal, exploit or hide their identities to commit offences will soon be subject to Australia’s newest national security weapon,” the release said.

Last year, the FBI introduced a similar program called Next Generation Identification (NGI), which would initially store 52 million “facial records” – half as many as the Capability, despite the US having a population over 13 times larger than ours. In response, The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil liberties groups protested, wrote letters and spread the word about the dangers of the biometric database more generally. “The facial recognition component of NGI poses real threats to privacy for all Americans, and could, in the future, allow us to be monitored and tracked in unprecedented ways,” the EFF warned. There were widely-shared articles about it in The New York Times, VICE and on NBC.

Meanwhile, the UK is reviewing its entire biometric legislative framework (including the use of facial recognition technology), after heavy criticism from a group of MPs that form the Science and Technology Committee (who, by the way, come from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties). They raised the alarm after 18 million images of people taken into police custody were uploaded to a police database.

But back home in Australia, it’s hard to find any equivalent analysis or scrutiny around The Capability in Australia — even from the Electronic Frontiers Australia.

In May this year, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam – a vocal advocate for improving privacy protections in Australia, and a strong critic of data retention and other surveillance techniques – attempted to question the Attorney-General’s Department about The Capability.

He received some fairly vague responses. In particular, there were no concrete answers about which agencies could access the data, or whether CCTV and other technologies would eventually be used to allow live tracking of individuals. Those questions were taken “on notice”.

Errors And Oversight: The Problem With The Capability

There are a number of concerns about The Capability from a purely pragmatic point of view.

Firstly, there are serious doubts about its accuracy. The FBI accepts that their version of the technology, the Next Generation Identification, has a 20 percent error rate; that means it gets one in five faces wrong. If The Capability has a similar rate of accuracy, that’s not particularly encouraging.

But as Patrick Gray tells Junkee, inaccuracy isn’t the biggest problem — because at least those mistakes can be corrected with a bit of extra research. “I’m more concerned that it’ll become a staple tool used by police. The more accessible you make something like this, the more it will be abused. And critically, there’s no external oversight of this stuff and no real rules on its use. They can just use it when they feel they need to.”

The lack of oversight is a sticking point for many privacy advocates. The Government has indicated that The Capability will be used by Commonwealth agencies initially, and that others may join over time. But it hasn’t said which ones.

There’s a more generalised anxiety which accompanies these kinds of surveillance techniques. The loss of control over our biometric and personal data can lead to individual feelings of disempowerment and the loss of personal autonomy. Consider the fact that at this stage there is no restriction on how long our images will be stored; this means there’s no way to know how certain photos of us will be used or interpreted (or misinterpreted) in the future.

“We are very close to living in a world where publicly owned CCTV cameras will track us by name,” Gray says. “I walk past one of these things and it looks up who I am to see if there are warrants out for my arrest, that sort of thing … Police will start to do it not because they need to, but because there’s no reason not to.”

Are Privacy Advocates Over-Reacting?

In 1974, sociologist James B. Rule compared modern societies to Orwell’s infamous novel 1984, and came to the conclusion that while the US and UK shared many of the sociological qualities with the fictional totalitarian surveillance state, there was an important distinction. The surveillance techniques he studied were “much less powerful, and they do not necessarily pursue the same malevolent purposes.”

The same could be said of The Capability. If we take as a starting point that law enforcement agencies and the government are not malevolent, it’s clear that The Capability can be an extremely useful tool to enhance national security, and is an essential development for law enforcement in keeping up with increasingly high-tech crimes.

As the Justice Minister said, “This process will expedite putting a name to the face of terror suspects, murderers, and armed robbers, and will also help to detect fraud cases involving criminals that use multiple identities.”

Not only that, but it isn’t actually expanding any powers for the Commonwealth. These law enforcement agencies already have access to these images; all the program does is allow that information to be shared between agencies more easily.

But what if the problem isn’t that we have a malevolent police force or government, or that this technology could be misused to accuse the innocent. What if the problem is much deeper, and is lying at the core of our social order: not that we don’t care, but that we don’t even notice we are being watched.

What if the surveillance is already happening, and we have already lost our privacy, and we didn’t even put up a fight.

We Need To Ask The Right Questions

It’s not easy to measure what the effects of this level of surveillance would be on society, but that does not mean they should be disregarded. When surveillance impacts on the choices an individual makes – for instance, not turning up to an anti-Government protest, in fear that one’s identity might be tracked — their autonomy is being eroded, even if police aren’t doing anything wrong.

In many cases, and with the right safeguards, this could be justified. But with The Capability in particular, it doesn’t seem like the question has even been asked: is this technology even necessary?

Like almost all law enforcement powers and technology, oversight is required to strike a balance between our rights and curbing criminal activity. If we know when and why they can use this technology, a level of autonomy is restored.

The first step, Gray says, is to get people talking about it.

“No one else seems to give a shit that this is the direction we’re travelling in,” he says. “I’m like Grandpa Simpson yelling at a cloud, as far as most people are concerned.”

Emily Meller is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Lifted Brow and Overland. She tweets from @EmMeller.