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Surveillance state: New South Wales intensifies citizen tracking


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NSW police and crime agencies are preparing to use a new national facial recognition system to rapidly match pictures of people captured on CCTV with their driver’s licence photo, to detect criminals and identity theft.




Under new laws the federal and state governments will be able to access data and photos from passports, driver licences, and visas for a national facial recognition system called the “National Facial Biometric Matching Capability”


The Department of Home Affairs has been compiling the database for what is known as “The Capability". Unlike the controversial My Health Record, people can’t opt out of their details being included in the system.


The NSW Government has allocated $52.6 million over four years to support The Capability. The NSW Minister for Counter-Terrorism David Elliott said it would enable authorities “to quickly identify a person of interest to help keep the community safe."


The system was signed off in October last year by state and territory governments. Some now need to pass their own laws to authorise state government agencies like NSW Roads and Maritime Services to release photographs and other information to the new federal system. Half of the operation and maintenance costs will be shared by states and territories, on a population basis.


There are two parts to The Capability. A Face Verification Service (FVS), which is a one-to-one image-based match of a person’s photo against a government record such as a passport. This is already operational.


The second part is the Face Identification Service (FIS), which is a one-to-many, image match of an unknown person, such as a suspected criminal, against multiple government records to help establish their identity. Access to the FIS will be limited and was expected to come online this year.


A Department of Home Affairs spokeswoman said the laws to allow identity matching services to be used for "identity or community protection activities" are currently the subject of a Parliamentary Joint Committee inquiry.


Monash University Criminal Jurisprudence Professor Liz Campbell said in a submission to the inquiry The Capability breaches privacy rights by allowing collection, storage and sharing of personal details from innocent people who are not even suspected of an offence.


"This is compounded by the possibility of non-government entities accessing the identity matching services," Professor Campbell wrote. "Research into identity matching technology indicates that ethnic minorities and women are misidentified at higher rates than the rest of the population.


"[There are] significant concerns about the reliability or otherwise of its algorithms and the biases that can be inherent in them."


Professor Campbell referred to a facial recognition pilot scheme in Wales that finished this year with 91 per cent of matches incorrectly identifying innocent members of the public.


The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have objected to The Capability as proposed by the federal government because they say it violates their local privacy and human rights laws.


NSW Minister for Counter-Terrorism David Elliott said the system will help prevent identity theft and there will be a threshold limiting its use.


"People will not be charged for jaywalking just because their facial biometric information has been matched by law enforcement agencies," Mr Elliott said in state parliament. "The Government will make sure that members of the public who have a driver licence are well and truly advised that this information and capability will be introduced as part of this legislation.


"I am an avid libertarian when it comes to freedom from government interference and [concerns] have been forecasted and addressed in this legislation."


Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich said there are no proper definitions of how the data will be used under the current bill.


"Law enforcement authorities habitually push for greater access to private data and information to help them do their job and will likely call to increase The Capability to include less serious crimes and public nuisances," Mr Greenwich said.


Mr Elliott said the FIS will be available only to the NSW Police, the NSW Crime Commission, the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.


"The Capability does not provide automated or real-time surveillance of public spaces," he said. "This capability will only enable more targeted searching using still images taken from closed-circuit television or surveillance, for example, to quickly identify a person of interest to help keep the community safe."


NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the system has "robust privacy safeguards in mind".


"Any expansion of the scheme, including to the private sector, would require the agreement of the Government," Mr Speakman said. "NSW retains an ongoing discretion to limit which agencies around the country can access NSW data, what data they can access, and for what purposes.


"[In NSW] searches to identify a person for a law enforcement purpose can be conducted only for offences punishable by three years imprisonment or more.


"Our first priority has to be the safety and welfare of all citizens in NSW. That means in some cases taking steps that on one view may mean a limitation on people's civil liberties, but the Government has to balance that in a measured and responsible manner against the threat to life, our persons and property were there to be a terrorist attack."



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