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Researchers pitch model law for facial recognition to Australian government

Researchers pitch model law for facial recognition to Australian government

Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney have published a model law to regulate facial recognition technologies in the country.

According to the school’s Human Technology Institute, the document is a response to calls for reform from civil society and the private sector, as well as government officials and academic experts.

“Lawmakers in Australia, like those around the world, never anticipated our face data would be harvested on an industrial scale, then used in everything from our smartphones to police CCTV cameras,” reads the report. “So, we shouldn’t be surprised that our laws have not kept pace.”

At the same time, the researchers explain that since face biometrics technologies can be used for good and ill, neither banning it nor the “current free-for-all” seems ideal. Still, regulatory failure has also left the community vulnerable to harmful uses of facial recognition.

Facial recognition “can be used consistently with international human rights law, and indeed in ways that achieve public and other benefits,” reads the document.

However, it “necessarily also engages, and often limits or restricts, a range of human rights.”

The model law aims to define how individual applications function, as well as where and how they are deployed.

Further, the UTS report says, the performance or accuracy of the applications should also be publicly available, alongside the effect of any decisions made that rely on facial recognition. Finally, the model law would ensure affected individuals can provide free and informed consent on use of their biometric data.

In order to enact these changes, the university researchers have called on Australia Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to lead the reform by taking four key steps.

First, they would like Dreyfus to introduce a bill based on the model law to the Australian Parliament.

Second, the attorney-general should assign regulatory responsibility to the information commissioner (or another suitable regulator) to create a facial recognition technical standard and to guide developers with related resources and insights.

The third step mentioned in the report calls on the attorney-general to initiate a process with his state and territory counterparts to ensure that the final law is harmonized across all Australian jurisdictions.

Finally, the attorney-general should work with other relevant federal ministers to establish a government face biometrics taskforce charged with a double mandate: to ensure the development and use of biometrics according to legal and ethical standards and to lead the country’s international engagement efforts on the technology.

This “would also demonstrate how Australia can use law to protect against harmful uses of new technology, while simultaneously incentivizing innovation for public benefit.”

Industry and academia answer to model law

The report comes amid increasing scrutiny of face biometrics system deployments by Australian  schools and casinos, among others.

But perhaps the country’s most controversial deployment of face biometrics was in 2020 when the Australian Federal Police confirmed it was running trials of the Clearview AI facial recognition software, which reportedly failed to comply with the privacy commissions’ regulations.

Talking to ABC News, Kate Bower from Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group Choice said her team is now witnessing increased use of facial recognition without clear guardrails.

“If there is a chance of discrimination or bias or potentially harmful situations,” Bower said, “safeguards need to be in place or at least make the hurdles very, very high.”

Mark Morey, secretary of Unions New South Wales, told ABC News he was not “writing the technology off” entirely. Still, he remained highly concerned about its uses to surveil and punish workers.

More generally, the advocacy group Human Rights Law Centre said that under the model law, police and intelligence services would not be able to use facial recognition unless certain conditions were met.

“The attorney-general should heed the call of this report and use its model law as a starting point for a dedicated legal framework that regulates facial recognition technology in Australia,” says Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer at center.

“Together with the ongoing overhaul of the Privacy Act, these changes can ensure Australians’ rights to privacy are adequately protected.”

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