MELBOURNE, Australia >> The Australian government wants to strengthen its counterterrorism efforts by making use of a fundamental part of all Australian citizens: their faces.
On Oct. 5, at a national security meeting in Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to pressure states and territories to hand over the driver’s license photos of every citizen, which would be added to the federal government’s database of passport and citizenship application photos.
The licenses would be a prized jewel: They are more prevalent than passports, and they have more regularly updated photos that can be fed into a sweeping surveillance system, to the alarm of privacy advocates.
The government contends that its Face Verification Service helps combat identity theft and terrorist plots. The push for more photos will “further advance and harmonize our response to the threat of terrorism,” Turnbull said.
His push comes as exceptional counterterrorism measures are being put into place globally. On Oct. 3, the French Parliament advanced a far-reaching array of security policies that critics said would strike at the heart of civil liberties. In the United States, a federal judge has allowed a commission on voter fraud to gather personal data on 200 million voters.
The addition of millions of images would better enable the Australian government to, for instance, use cameras to scan public crowds in search of crime suspects. It is also hoped that feeding the system with more faces could help combat Australia’s growing problem of identity theft, which costs about 2.2 billion Australian dollars ($1.7 billion) annually, according to a 2016 government report.
Several state leaders have already announced plans to comply with Turnbull’s proposal, which in the future may expand to include photos from social media sites like Facebook.
Privacy advocates wasted no time pointing to examples of shaky data security at huge organizations, whether governmental or private — citing the Edward J. Snowden leaks at the National Security Agency in the United States, the colossal Equifax breach and the recent revelation that 3 billion Yahoo accounts were compromised in 2013.
“When it’s a password database that’s breached, you can just change your password. When it’s facial recognition, you can’t change your face,” said Jeremy Malcolm, an analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is one of the most personal identifiers that you have.”
Other privacy experts echoed the sentiment, emphasizing the long-term consequences of photos falling into the wrong hands.
“The use of biometrics projects risk on every person involved, for the rest of their lives,” said David Vaile, the chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation. “If they’re compromised or hacked, you’re stuck with it. It’s potentially a lifelong liability for it being misused.”
In the United States, where a similar facial recognition program has been implemented and assisted by more than a dozen states, issues with regulation, accuracy and transparency have been prevalent, according to a 2016 Georgetown University Law School report.
Though facial recognition has become more ubiquitous (as in Apple’s forthcoming iPhone X), it has also struggled with accurately identifying members of racial minorities.
“As a proportionality exercise, it’s unclear to me what the actual benefits are,” Vaile said. “We already have a high-integrity identification system for various purposes. We have extremely low rates of terrorism. There’s occasional activities that, by and large, existing mechanisms tend to catch.”
Vaile said that emphasizing traditional community policing was a more urgent matter than implementing sweeping surveillance. He noted that Australia’s rate of domestic violence, for example, is far higher than that of terrorism.
“There’s a moral panic,” he said. “In Australia, deaths from terrorism are below one person annually — many magnitudes less than the domestic violence death rate. But terrorism is very potent politically for politicians who wish to use fear.”
Before the facial recognition program was rolled out in 2016, the Australian attorney general’s department commissioned a privacy impact assessment, which concluded that the system would be “privacy positive.” But it also said that issues related to the handling of personal information could be expected to mount.
Vaile, making a Hollywood reference, said that the permanence of any breach of a facial recognition database should not be underestimated.
“Did you see the movie ‘Minority Report’?” he said. “He had to take his eyeballs out once he’d been compromised.”