The arguments for a National Facial Database are bunkum

Facial recognition technology could usefully be used against serious criminals and potential terrorists, but harming the privacy of every Australian is unjustified and unnecessary.

Only particular faces need to be recognised in a facial recognition database; not the face of every single Australian. (Source: peakpx)

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that he would seek to create a national facial recognition database. The main argument advanced in support of such a database is that being able to track terrorists, criminals or other people of interest through CCTV and live surveillance cameras would be very valuable.

The government already has a Face Verification Service with a relatively limited scope to: a) confirm identity (is this person who they claim to be based on photo ID?); and b) identify unknown people when they’ve committed a serious crime (who is this fraudster or criminal?).

The Prime Minister’s statements suggest that a national facial recognition database would allow constant surveillance of all Australians through CCTV, a vast expansion in the scope of this facial recognition system (where is everyone, all the time?).

His justification is that it’d be great to know when a terrorist walks into a stadium, which at first glance seems reasonable. But, on further thought, what would we do with this information? Could this stop a terrorist attack? Possibly, if police were poised and already on standby because they already had credible information. But in that case, the police don’t need to know where every Australian is, they only need to know where this individual is.

It seems that a CCTV identification service would be very useful once you’ve already developed an interest in a particular person and they are on a watch list. The key thing here is that only particular faces need to be recognised; not the face of every single Australian.

A much more reasonable system would be facial recognition for particular defined sets of people such as people on a terrorist watch list, or people suspected of serious crimes.

Presence on the surveillance watch list should require justification and also require regular review and re-justification — six monthly seems about right to me. There should also be appropriate independent oversight to make sure justifications are sufficiently strong.

Facial recognition technology will be available, and could usefully be used against small classes of people such as serious criminals and potential terrorists. But harming the privacy of every Australian is unjustified and unnecessary.

Tom Uren is a Visiting Fellow in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre (ASPI Cyber Policy) seconded from the Department of Defence. Follow him on Twitter: @tomatospy