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The cost of safety: Handing over your face to the faceless

The cost of safety: Handing over your face to the faceless

By LIV President Belinda Wilson

Civil Rights Human Rights Technology 

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In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas this week, we have been reminded that our governments are there to protect us. John Howard introduced strict gun control measures, and this week Malcolm Turnbull announced that he wants to introduce a national facial recognition system to protect us from terrorism.

But is it just a front to gather more data and intel on us? This does sound familiar, wasn’t this the sole reason forced upon the innocent public in the federal metadata changes a few years back?

The concept of a national database isn’t new. Every few years we get a different iteration of the national identity card, but it is packaged in a slightly different wrapper and with a different purpose. However, what is quite novel, and somewhat concerning, is the capability for this to be implemented immediately and seamlessly.

A large portion of the population is already in a variety of state and federal databases. And no, not because we may have a criminal record, but because we drive a car or go on overseas holidays. Our faces are already captured through our passport photos and drivers licences, but this data is held at a state level.

Malcolm Turnbull’s newest concept has come under fire by privacy advocates who are questioning the validity of such new laws, especially in light of international laws and human rights. The balance between public safety and personal freedoms is difficult to weigh post 9/11.

Two years ago we debated data retention laws. Initially we weren’t concerned because if you aren’t doing anything suspicious then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. But that view suddenly changed with the realisation of what data was being captured and the broader potential use of such metadata.

But what impact would a national facial recognition system have on us? Quiet innocently my face might be captured whilst wandering down Bourke Street mall over a lunch break. But what if that data was accessed by other parties, such as the big department stores to track my (alleged) spending trends, or my employer keeping an eye on me (which we have recently seen through tracking company issued mobile phones).

India’s Supreme Court has recently ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental human right, overturning a 55 year old ruling. Since 2009 India has been introducing a voluntary biometric identity scheme. This is the largest biometric system in the world with 1.25 billion Indians already captured in the database.

Biometric includes a variety of personal and unique data such as fingerprints, DNA, retina and iris patterns and voice waves.

In light of this recent ruling the implementation of this scheme, including any forced implication, will likely stall and be subject to various court appeals.

But closer to home, should we be concerned about biometric identification? We would surely protest our unique identifiers being handed over, right? Think it’s not here already? The only question I need to ask is - how do you unlock your phone - fingerprint or face recognition? We are willing participants in biometric databases, without full knowledge of where that data could end up or be used.

On a lighter note, whilst at a fishing conference on the AFL Grand Final public holiday (yes, I gave up on footy early in the season as my beloved Collingwood struggled), I learnt that facial recognition is already being trialled for identifying fish species. None of us are safe!


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