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GenVis awarded face biometrics COVID monitoring contract in Southern Australia

But NGO calls for expanded biometric data protections

biometric facial recognition

GenVis, an AI face biometrics firm based in Perth, has been awarded a contract to provide a quarantine monitoring app for the state of South Australia (SA). The new solution will use facial recognition and real-time GPS tracking to ensure quarantine compliance and curb the state’s COVID-19 transmission, writes InDaily. Civil society groups are increasingly concerned with the lack of controls around the use of biometrics and other sensitive data for pandemic mitigation efforts, however.

The new app, proposed in November 2020, will monitor Australian interstate and in-state travelers and supplement physical police check-ins. According to SA Health Minister Stephen Wade, foreign travelers entering the state will not be monitored by the biometric app. The SA app will likely have functionalities found in G2G Now, a similar app developed by GenVis for residents of Western Australia (WA). The company also built the G2G Pass mobile app for Western Australia Police to manage travel restrictions and temporary travel permits.

According to GenVis, users of the new app will receive unannounced check-in requests at random times and have 5 minutes to answer the request via selfie. The image is then biometrically compared against the app’s database and its GPS location data matched with the user’s registered quarantine address. This allows the app to supplement otherwise physical police check-ins and alert authorities of any quarantine violations.

State opposition leaders have voiced their reservations regarding the app as they fear that it may be easy to breach. Moreover, they fear that the roll-out might result in a decrease in physical police checks, which they view as an essential element in controlling the state’s COVID cases. “Protecting our states borders is vital when there are outbreaks around the country and a $1.1 million WA-company’s app alone is not a foolproof system,” said South Australia Labor Party Health Spokesperson Chris Picton.

“No matter how good the app is, there will be ways to get around it, which is why it cannot be a replacement for physical checks on people. The Marshall Government needs to assure South Australians that there will not be any drop off in physical checks on people quarantining because of this new app,” he continued.

South Australia, which has recorded 603 COVID cases since 2020 and had only one recent case, awarded the contract valued at AU$1.1 million (approximately US$850,000) to GenVis in November 2020. According to state officials, GenVis and the state government are currently finalizing the app’s features and delivery date.

Digital Rights Watch proposes biometric data policy review

Australian NGO Digital Rights Watch (DRW) has highlighted privacy concerns regarding pandemic-driven public surveillance initiatives like the SA tracking app with the publication of the State of Digital Rights Report: A 2020 Retrospective. The report examines the role of surveillance, digital platforms, and systemic policy changes and highlights the impact various private and governmental programs have on the digital privacy rights of Australians. DRW furthermore makes policy recommendations to meet the growing challenges that arise amid the rise in public surveillance.

With regards to biometric data collection, DRW recommends the expansion of existing biometric privacy laws to specifically include behavioral biometrics. Furthermore, it suggests introducing a fully-transparent national register for users to opt-out of movement-tracking and data collection. Another similarly transparent register is proposed to list any entities involved in static and behavioral biometric data collection. Additionally, the group suggests that data re-purposing needs to have explicit user consent to prevent the later use of personal data for other purposes. The final recommendation proposes that any entity that makes legal decisions on individuals based on their biometric data needs to be reviewed by a human to ensure accurate decision-making and accountability.

Just as the demand for touchless services has skyrocketed due to the ongoing pandemic, public and work surveillance initiatives have grown at a similar rate. This, in turn, is increasingly endangering citizens’ and workers’ digital rights. One technology that is increasingly being adopted in Australia and around the world to meet these new demands is facial recognition. DRW fears that while current systems fall short of expectations due to bias and inaccuracy, their eventual improvement and large-scale government adoption will make privacy protection policy an urgent necessity.

Moreover, DRW expects the dual-use nature of surveillance technology to cause privacy concerns as systems that are deployed in private areas can also be implemented in public spheres, raising the question of legality as subjects may be unaware of being surveilled. Similarly, 2020 ushered in a new boom in digital platforms only to see them fail in many key areas. Finally, the report examines the necessary review and transparency of policy initiatives to update privacy protection laws.

In her foreword, Digital Rights Watch Chair Lizzie O’Shea highlights the deep impact of the COVID pandemic on digital technology, pointing to the many privacy shortcomings of Australia’s CovidSafe app. She also emphasizes various government surveillance initiatives and the private sector’s growing role in shaping public debate on privacy boundaries. To O’Shea, the time is ripe for a healthy debate on government accountability as digital rights are being endangered now more than ever.

Digital Rights Watch monitors public surveillance, facial recognition, COVID policing, and microtargeting of populations for political gains.

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