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Australian police using face recognition software as privacy experts issue warning

NSW and Victorian authorities confirmed on Sunday they use facial recognition technology as part of police work. They did not specify what software.

A spokesperson for NSW Police Minister David Elliott said in a statement: “Face Matching Services are being implemented to provide law enforcement with a powerful investigative tool to identify people associated with criminal activities.

Hoan Ton-That, founder of Clearview AI, showing the results of a search for a photo of himself.

Hoan Ton-That, founder of Clearview AI, showing the results of a search for a photo of himself.Credit:Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

“We know that the integrity and security of our personal information is critical and that is why this government invests in, and supports, our agencies to ensure that usage of these systems is ethical, appropriate and secure.”

A Victoria Police spokeswoman confirmed that cameras at some of Victoria’s busiest police stations are used to capture facial images and identifying offenders in custody, following revelations last month that Victoria Police are using a facial recognition system called iFACE to identify criminal suspects at 85 police stations.

The federal government’s own plans suffered a setback in October with its backbench MPs joining Labor to call for a rewrite of expanded facial recognition laws which critics warn could lead to mass surveillance in Australia.

Dr Monique Mann, a senior lecturer in criminology at Deakin University and board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation, on Sunday called for a ban or moratorium on use of facial recognition technology, saying its application can be “very dangerous”.

The technology threatened to erode individual privacy in public spaces, she said.

“In Australia we have seen a number of trials of technology not only by public agencies but also places such as stadiums in Brisbane rolling it out at [State of] Origin without people being aware that it’s being used,” Dr Mann said.

“In that instance the arguments being made were that it would be enhancing safety and security but there is no empirical evidence that that would occur.”

She highlighted issues of convenience, discrimination and racial bias as key areas that needed to be considered and disagreed with arguments about waiting until technology improves as that implies advocating for a “perfect surveillance state”.

Dr Mann said the international experience was facial recognition technology was being outlawed given the human rights concerns. A significant difference existed between authorities using technology to verify identity such as at airports and searching databases to identify people.

In December, the Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow called for a “moratorium on the potentially harmful use of facial recognition technology in Australia” until there is a legal framework to safeguard human rights.

It came after Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, chair of Parliament’s joint intelligence committee, surprised colleagues by recommending the Coalition rewrite legislation allowing for the sharing of biometric information between federal and state governments.

Liberal and Labor MPs on the committee said tougher safeguards were needed for the scheme, designed to automate storage and exchange of biometric and identity data, including from passports and driver licences.

The Identity-matching Services Bill and the Passports Amendment Bill were reintroduced in July with the bulk of their powers accruing to Peter Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs.

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The laws authorise Home Affairs to maintain centralised databases of facial images from government-issued documents.

The Department of Home Affairs argued last year the measures are a necessary protection, and not the authorisation of “mass surveillance”.

The Australian Border Force did not respond for comment before deadline.

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