‘Really concerning’: Facial recognition tech sparks fears as government ramps up rollout

"We should all see digital transformation as an opportunity, not as a threat," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday.

"We should all see digital transformation as an opportunity, not as a threat," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday.

The Morrison government’s plan to ramp up the use of facial recognition technology across services including Centrelink and Medicare could make life even harder for Australia’s most vulnerable citizens and pose a threat to human rights, experts have warned.

Around 1.6 million Australians already use facial verification to access 70 different government services, and the government this week revealed plans to pour $256 million into upgrading and expanding its opt-in ‘digital ID’ system.

But experts have questioned the move and warned of the pitfalls of the controversial technology.

The facial recognition program is another unnecessary expansion of the surveillance state that comes at a time when civil liberties are increasingly under threat, Australian Privacy Foundation co-director and Deakin University senior lecturer Monique Mann told The New Daily.

Dr Mann criticised the government’s track record on welfare technology, pointing to examples including the robodebt scandal and the Indue ‘cashless welfare’ card.

The Australian government has an absolutely atrocious track record of weaponising technology towards people who are on welfare,’’ Dr Mann said.

The government’s facial recognition push highlights the dire need for an Australian charter of human rights, she said.

“I think it’s really concerning that the Australian governments is expanding its use of facial recognition technology in government systems and services at a time when we’re the only Western democracy without any constitutional or legislated human rights protections at the federal level,” Dr Mann said.

“I would suggest that the $250 million that they’re using to upgrade facial recognition technology in the welfare context, under these arguments of preventing welfare fraud or identity fraud, would be better spent on supporting those welfare recipients.”

Mark Andrejevic, an expert in online monitoring and data mining at Monash University, said the “concerted governmental push towards using biometrics for identification” raises “a series of concerns” including privacy, security, and biased algorithms, that “need to be addressed before we move forward”.

“There’s been a demonstrated bias based on skin tones, and that means that certain groups may be more likely to find that the technology doesn’t work accurately for them,” Professor Andrejevic explained.

“That would constitute a potential barrier across different societal groups.”

The widespread use of facial recognition technology by government could also create a “technological hurdle” that sees vulnerable Australians shut out from accessing vital support services, Professor Andrejevic warned.

“It’s not clear that folks who need to access these services would have access to the necessary technology. So that could create some barriers to entry if this becomes a requirement to access services. It could pose a technological hurdle,” he said.

Welfare recipients could also be unfairly penalised if the technology fails to work as promised, Professor Andrejevic said.

Security is another major issue, as biometric information is stored in databases that are vulnerable to hacking or misuse.

“It’s important to make sure that information is secure and safe, and the more services that access it, the more issues arise around the security of the database,” Professor Andrejevic said.

The “normalisation” of facial recognition as “a generalised technology of verification” will lead to a “big shift in terms of how our expectations of privacy in a variety of contexts is reconfigured”, he said.

“I do think we want to think quite carefully as a society about which applications are worth the potential risks of the collection of biometric information.”

Big tech presses pause as Australia  presses play

The federal government’s expansion of the role of facial recognition in Australian life comes at the same time as the world’s biggest tech firms –  including Amazon, Google, Microsoft and IBM – distance themselves from the technology due to its potential for dangerous and wide-scale misuse.

At a press conference in Canberra on Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg spruiked the $800 million digital transformation package, of which the facial recognition funding is a part, ahead of next week’s Budget.

“We should all see digital transformation as an opportunity, not as a threat,” Mr Frydenberg said.

The ramping up of facial recognition technology across government services follows revelations earlier this year that the Australian Federal Police trialled a controversial facial recognition tool by Clearview AI, despite having previously denied doing so.

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