Darwin council promises not to use CCTV facial recognition technology

CCTV cameras rolled out across the Darwin CBD have facial recognition technology, but the city council insists that capability will not be used, even though it was included in its application for federal funding.

As part of the Switching On Darwin project, 138 new CCTV cameras – as well as public Wi-Fi, new lighting, and sensors – were installed across the city centre.

Under its Smart Cities and Suburbs grant program, the Commonwealth contributed $5 million towards the $10 million digital infrastructure project – an agreement announced in November 2017.

A federal Department of Infrastructure spokesperson said “[facial] recognition capabilities were only included in this grant agreement because it was part of Darwin City Council’s grant application” .

Josh Sattler, the council’s general manager for innovation and growth, added the cameras would be used for things such as vehicle counting, but not facial recognition.

Yes, they have [facial recognition] capability but it’s not something we’re using … we don’t see a situation where we will require that,” he said.

“In saying that, from requests coming through from a state or federal agency, we’ll need to comply with that request.”

No public consultation on facial recognition

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Infrastructure said Darwin’s proposal was the only application of 81 grants delivered through the Smart Cities and Suburbs program that included facial recognition technology.

The Darwin council confirmed there was no public consultation on the technology’s use prior to that funding application being made.

No consultation took place prior to the grant application as the project was still in a scoping phase and very much dependent on the grant funds, but elected members were consulted,” a spokesperson said.

Mentions of facial recognition can be seen in public council documents.

“Facial recognition capability is inbuilt to all smart technology cameras,” the council spokesperson said.

Earlier this month, the council announced it had hired a consultant to carry out a privacy impact assessment on all the new technology, with the investigation likely be completed in the next six months.

‘Approach with extreme caution’

Julia Powles, a law and technology expert at the University of Western Australia, governments needed to be transparent when introducing new technology to city spaces.

“The real reason why they [facial recognition capabilities] were sought in the first place should be questioned,” Associate Professor Powles said.

The whole deployment has been ‘we will not use facial recognition’ [but] it’s like buying a supercomputer and then saying you’re just going to surf the web and check emails.

“I think there’s so much potential for technology in urban environments, but anything that involves monitoring people we should approach with extreme caution.

“This sudden rush that because technology allows us to do something we have to do it, I think, is just unjustified.”

Security threats possible

There should be greater governance to ensure Smart City projects are rolled out transparently and securely, Elise Thomas, a researcher with the International Cyber Policy Centre, said.

“The ways in which a lot of these projects are being implemented at the level of local councils – particularly from a cyber-security perspective – those councils may not necessarily have the resources to ensure that their systems are secure,” she said.

She welcomed the Darwin council’s decision to conduct a privacy assessment, but said conducting it after the technology was deployed was not best practice.

It’s concerning that the privacy impact assessment is only being done after the system is already installed and already in use,” she said.

NT information commissioner Peter Shoyer said he was confident the council was operating legally, and the privacy of Darwin residents would be protected.

“I think there are the legal protections in place there,” he said.

“It’s important that everyone – whether it’s [us], the council, the members of the public – to take an interest in this area, to be aware, and to keep asking questions.”

Mr Sattler acknowledged there may be community concerns, and said the council would hold more public information sessions in the future.

“I admit we still have got a lot of work to do but, in saying that, I see the benefit from the community to be onboard and to take the journey with us, because we are doing it for the community,” he said.

“We’re not doing it just because it’s a political agenda-driven thing to do; we are doing it to deliver better services.”


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