With the Government's data retention laws coming into effect last week, even Australia's most vocal privacy advocates didn't seem to notice the extended access that ASIO and the NSW Crime Commission have been granted to your identity documents. The request put to the RMS has widened the pool of photos that security agencies have access to, most of which have been provided for government identification and licensing purposes.
Previously, ASIO and the crime commission were given access to the drivers licenses in Roads and Maritime Services' database, but the changes under the recent Road Transport Legislation Amendment Regulation 2015 allow RMS to release any type of document in their database to ASIO and the State Crime Commission.
These photos now include those taken for photo cards — a legal form of ID for those over the age of 16 without a drivers license — but the increased access doesn't end there. These security agencies will now also be able to access photos from mobility parking permits and a wide range of other permits and licenses such as permits for firearms, security work, private investigation and debt collection industries. It even applies to photographs taken for licences for tradespeople, real estate agents, contractors, pawn brokers, second hand dealers, motor dealers and repairers, strata managers and importers and exporters.
The president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Stephen Blanks, told SMH that he thought there was no need for the change, especially seeing as people expect their identifying information to only be used for to purpose for which they supplied it. "With a single stroke of a pen the government says it doesn't matter you gave you information on that basis, we're going to make it available on some other basis," he said.
While this amendment is only a small change to the current legislation, it's part of a number of recent moves that add up to something more worrying. Recent upgrades to NSW's CCTV system have vastly improved the quality of the images they capture, while the government's terrifyingly named "The Capability" is being quietly rolled out across the country. Its full name is the "National Facial Biometric Matching Capability", a facial recognition system that can use the photos from RMS's database along with images captured on CCTV to instantly identify your face.
In the wake of events like the shooting of police accountant Curtis Cheng in Parramatta earlier this month and subsequent fears over the threat of radicalisation in Australia, these measures are being instituted as anti-terrorist and crime-stopping measures, but The Capability has the capability to be something much more dire for the Australian public. ABC's Lateline ran a segment on The Capability, but there has been very little discussion about the new technology. "This is a whole other league of creepy," said cyber security analyst Patrick Gray on the Lateline segment. "This is a whole other league of invasive. And the fact that there's been no discussion around this is really weird."
Junkee suggests that maybe the reason that no one is speaking about The Capability and the government's increased surveillance measures is because we're already used to living with surveillance. After all, Facebook has complex facial recognition software of its own, which is so good it apparently doesn't even need to see your face.
As it turns out, the government's system may not be so accurate. Patrick Gray was not the only one who expressed concerns about the technology on Lateline, with Deakin University Criminology lecturer Adam Molnar also pointing out that the potential for error in the system is huge. "The FBI accepts a 20 per cent inaccuracy. So, that's one in five images that could be a false identification of an individual. The technology is notoriously problematic in uncontrolled environments, so with bad angles or bad lighting. And so this raises a lot of concerns about how false positives can unnecessarily impact an individual's life."
Even if the technology does work as planned, the potential for it to become commonplace and thus end up being abused is a very real concern. Says Patrick Gray:
My concern is because there's no restriction on the way in which law enforcement can use this, it's gonna become a staple tool for law enforcement eventually. And, you know, they might not be saying - well, they might be saying, "We don't have plans to do this right now." It's the natural trajectory for a technology like this. I'm really curious to know what the threshold is before some police officer can take a photo of me on the street and then without my knowledge submit it to this system for identification. Do I have to be suspected of murder? Do I have to be suspected of disorderly conduct? Or can they submit a photo because I littered?