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Tech & Science

Comment: Wake up, Sonia Kruger! There are real risks to a national facial recognition database

Sydney Morning Herald logoSydney Morning Herald 4/10/2017 Ben Grubb

Video provided by Nine News

Someone had been drinking the Turnbull Kool-Aid in Willoughby this morning, with Today Show Extra co-host Sonia Kruger welcoming with open arms the prime minister's push for a national facial recognition database.

At Nine's Sydney North Shore HQ, Kruger and co-host David Campbell hailed the proposal as a positive step.

"I like it. I do. Bring it on. Big Brother, bring it on," said Kruger on Wednesday morning.

Campbell said he was not against it, "but we can't just go 'this is going to happen'".

Australia, get ready for Canberra (read: the federal police) to identify you via CCTV in almost real time.

Today Extra hosts Sonia Kruger and David Campbell on Nine. © Nine Network Today Extra hosts Sonia Kruger and David Campbell on Nine. Nine's political reporter Chris Uhlmann revealed on Tuesday evening that the prime minister would use Thursday's counter-terror summit to "push premiers to hand over the pictures of every licensed driver in their state so federal agencies can build a national facial recognition data base".

Uhlmann further wrote that access to the millions of licence pictures would "allow surveillance cameras armed with facial recognition technology to scan crowds looking for a match with suspected terrorists and criminals".

Hello, 1984 calling. Is this for real?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed on Wednesday morning the technology could be used in public spaces such a shopping malls and airports.

But on ABC Radio's AM program Wednesday morning with Sabra Lane, he dismissed privacy concerns.

"Clearly you have to make sure that all of your big databases are protected against hacking," he said. "The alternative is to not use data at all, Sabra," he added, almost condescendingly, when Sabra pushed further.

"You can't allow the risk of hacking to prevent you from doing everything you can from keeping Australians safe. The focus is to constantly to improve our cyber security…"

Turnbull went on to say that he was "determined to keep Australians safe" and that we "must use every technology available to us" in order to meet this goal.

"Clearly you have to make sure that all of your big databases are protected against hacking," he said. "We believe if we bring together driver's licence [photos] then we can start to build up a national system to be able to identify people."

The Commonwealth presently has access to the passport photos for about half of the population. But the state and territory driver's licenses of every Australian are not easily accessible by the Commonwealth.

Because not everyone has a passport, the AFP wants more photos. They want to use them to identify people using CCTV. And they want Turnbull to take this to COAG.

Reality check time for Kruger – and here's why this announcement, dropped to Nine, is a big deal.

This does not happen right now. This is completely new.

The fact it is being welcomed with such a cheer squad is disconcerting. Let me paint you an entirely possible scenario that could eventuate from such a system without proper safeguards (safeguards haven't even been talked about yet).

When they introduced a public transport smartcard in Queensland, the state's police started using the system to identify witnesses to crime, seeking statements from them. They would track potential witnesses who travelled near a crime scene and then called them, pushing them to make a statement.

However, many witnesses didn't want to participate. And rightly so! Not everyone wants to be involved in a lengthy court case. They also sometimes fear retribution by a suspect if they get let off by a judge.

No warrants were required to access transport data, most states have agreements with police to just hand it over.

Since 2006, Queensland Go Card smartcards had been accessed more than 10,000 times, a 2014 Fairfax investigation found. The majority of requests were made by police with most approved.

However, Queensland's public transport agency Translink said it had received one request for data from the Office of State Revenue, another request from Queensland Treasury, and two requests from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in the 12 months leading up to the investigation, although these were refused.

Yes, the Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Border Protection sought to access public transport data.

Let that sink in. You know where this is going, right?

At the time of the controversy in Queensland regarding access to its citizen's smartcard data, Privacy Commissioner Linda Matthews investigated the use of Go Card journey data in criminal investigations.

The probe was triggered by a Fairfax Media report in July 2009 revealing police were using Go Cards to pinpoint the movements of not only suspects but also potential witnesses.

Before we rush this proposed national facial recognition database, let's make sure the appropriate safeguards are actually in place.

To introduce a proposal before COAG concerning a national facial recognition database that doesn't consider issues like the aforementioned ones — which give wide-reaching powers to an authority that has lost the trust of many Australians over its handling of metadata and illegally accessing a journalist's records — would be inappropriate and a blatant disregard to all Australians' privacy.

When the Australia Card was introduced it was dismissed. However, Australia basically got it by stealth though the MyGov and Tax File Number system.

Do we want to be identified by police wherever we go if companies, state governments, and local councils are forced to hand over feeds of their CCTV?

You know that's the next step, right? Real-time tracking of everyone.

"Who should be against it is people who are doing something wrong," said Kruger. "If you have done nothing wrong, [there's] nothing to be worried about. I don't know why you are concerned.

"There are CCTV cameras everywhere in London, just about every street corner."

One might think, hearing her comments, that she was pining for a return as host of Nine's Big Brother, where housemates are watched 24/7 via cameras. But I'm sorry, Sonia, I don't think Australians want to live in a reality TV show, even the ones with nothing to hide.

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