New South Wales Government antes up for Australian Home Office facial biometrics system

Police and law enforcement agencies in New South Wales, Australia will soon have access to the Face Verification Service (FVS) and Face Identification Service (FIS) supplied by the federal government, after the state government allocated AUD $52.6 million (US$37.9 million) over four years to support their adoption, the Brisbane Times reports.

The facial recognition capability, which has generated significant controversy, requires states to sign off on funding for half of the operation and maintenance costs. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have balked at implementing the system, on grounds it conflicts with local privacy and rights laws.

NSW Police, the NSW Crime Commission, the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission are the only agencies the FIS will be available to, according to the report. Authorities expect it to help combat identity theft.

“The Capability does not provide automated or real-time surveillance of public spaces,” NSW Minister for Counter-Terrorism David Elliott 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.”

The system continues to be controversial, however. The laws which would allow the system to be used for “identity or community protection activities” are currently before a Parliamentary Joint Committee inquiry, and Monash University Criminal Jurisprudence Professor Liz Campbell wrote in a submission that in its current form, those laws would violate privacy rights.

“This is compounded by the possibility of non-government entities accessing the identity matching services,” Cambell writes. “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.”

Campbell referred to the disastrous results of a public facial recognition deployment by Welsh police at a Champions League soccer match in 2017.

Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich also alleged that the data use provisions in the current bill are inadequate.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman emphasized that the government, including at the local level, retains significant discretion to limit the system’s use.

“Our first priority has to be the safety and welfare of all citizens in NSW,” said Speakman. “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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