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Australians beware, you’re under increasing surveillance

If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

Since 9/11, this phrase has been regularly used by government in announcing and justifying increased public surveillance – both physically and digitally – in the war against terrorism.

Law enforcement agencies around the world have been afforded increased powers to monitor the public by increasingly covert means; as technology drives us online, we leave a digital footprint that is ripe for surveillance, and laws are passed to facilitate this.

These laws are always promoted as being for National Security, and essential for Public Safety.

Any criticism of increased surveillance laws by civil liberty advocates is dismissed by government as softness on terrorism. The Labor Party in opposition are so tightly wedged on the issue of National Security they are powerless to reign in the governments’ demands for increased surveillance powers.

Which gets us to the current situation with Peter Dutton and the Department of Home Affairs.

Dutton is the all-powerful tsar of this ‘super-portfolio’, and has wide ranging powers over border protection, immigration, federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies and cyber security. He has been the main cheerleader for increased laws to monitor the activities of Australian citizens, and always quick to claim National Security as justification.

Whilst the Australian public willingly and naively volunteer their personal information onto social media, Dutton’s department (obviously with the approval of the government as a whole) is sinisterly pushing for mass public surveillance via the Identity-matching Services Bill 2019 and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2019.

These laws are for the creation of a federal database from passport, drivers’ licence and photographic identification held by every federal, state and territory government. The clue for what this centralised photographic database will be used for is in the names – identity matching.

Using artificial intelligence, security agencies will match facial images from public and private surveillance cameras to the database during law enforcement operations, under the guise of counter-terrorism.

On top of the 75 separate pieces of national security legislation passed since 9/11, this is a further incremental erosion of our rights to privacy and freedom.

So, whilst I have nothing to hide, I am fearful of where this desire for mass surveillance is leading us. Given the government has difficulty explaining any technical aspects of surveillance (remember George Brandis trying to explain metadata), trouble with the integrity of its databases (My Health data breaches), and can avoid any transparency for National Security reasons, I think my fears are justified.

And the technology itself is proven to be inaccurate and racially biased. A 2019 study by MIT in Boston proved the facial recognition software developed by companies like Amazon, IBM and Microsoft have up to a 34 per cent error rate when trying to identify a darked skinned female, versus a one per cent error rate when identifying a white skinned male.

These companies supply this artificial intelligence-based software to police and law enforcement agencies. In an example of how pervasive the influence of the peddlers of this technology is, despite the flaws in the technology, Amazon wants to write the US government facial recognition laws.

Mission creep is another issue. Whilst claimed to be for counter-terrorism purposes, it is not hard to envisage identity-matching being used to identify welfare recipients and protestors. Especially as the proposed legislation in its current form lacks safeguards and oversight against expansion in the use of the identification data. Only a few weeks ago Dutton insulted the concept of due process by calling for anti-mining protestors to be “photographed and publicly shamed”, locked in gaol and deprived of welfare payments.

What is to stop the data getting into the private sector? Can the government sell the data to IT and social media companies, or privatise the database altogether?

Then there is the obvious hypocrisy of some members of the government criticising China for using the same technology to identify Hong Kong protestors and racially profile Uyger people.

It’s also worth noting the federal government has recently spent $470,000 on trialling facial recognition in five schools, ostensibly for recording children’s attendance. And whilst Industry Science & Technology Minister Karen Andrews said the development of this technology should not be “necessarily limited”, Education Minister Dan Tehan promptly backed away from using facial recognition in schools.

Obviously the $470,000 could have been better spent somewhere else. And perhaps they should have been aware of the recent prohibition by the French government on the use of facial recognition role-marking in French schools?

Even the home of high tech, Silicon Valley, disapproves of the invasion of privacy, with San Francisco becoming the first US city to ban facial recognition usage, citing the unreliability of the technology and infringement on personal liberty.

Here in Australia we are sleepwalking into a state of surveillance, where we have forfeited our informed consent to the use of our image, whilst at the same time considered en masse to be capable of committing criminal acts.

Without wanting to be clichéd or trite, it’s very 1984 and smacks of Big Brother. It also ticks off several elements of the fascism playbook – obsession with national security and law and order, distain for human rights, and suppression of the individual.

It’s another government policy that constrains our civil liberties that was conspicuously absent from this year’s election campaign.

This technology is dangerous when it both works and doesn’t work – and it has no place in a free and open society.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.