Facial recognition powering forward.Is it going too far too fast?

“We watch over you. Every single one of you,” says big brother

This ensures a “safe and secure environment”, the narrator adds.

These aren’t lines from a dystopian novel, but rather a video advertisement boasting about tech giant NEC’s advanced, real-time facial-recognition technology capabilities, being shown to an audience at its recent iEXPO2017 conference in Tokyo, Japan.

Already facial-recognition technology is being used at Crown Casino in Melbourne to identify VIPs and banned players & people. Australian state and federal policing agencies are also embracing it, with South Australia Police using it to ID criminals and in search of missing persons.

The state also plans to use it to compliment its existing CCTV network “by extracting faces in real-time and instantaneously matching them against a watch list of individuals”, according to its former police minister, Peter Malinauskas. Already police there have access to Adelaide Oval’s 400 CCTV cameras, granted in time for the Ashes cricket series.

Meanwhile, the Northern Territory Police Force is employing facial-recognition technology for not only identifying people who have stolen goods or unlawfully trespassed but also to identify unconscious people admitted to hospitals and those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Also banking icon Westpac is making use of it, combining it with artificial intelligence in order to identify the mood of staff so that managers can intervene if necessary.

Shopping Centres Westfield uses it too, to estimate the age, gender and mood of shoppers in its malls. But it says it can only “find & read” faces, not “recognise” them.

Now the Australian federal government is experimenting with it, to catch not only terrorists but other people as well. Through its National Facial Biometric Matching Capability, known as “The Capability”, law-enforcement agencies will soon be able to share more easily identity photographs they have in possession.

In October, state and territory governments agreed to hand over to the federal government access to driver’s licence photographs, allowing for much easier www.intelagencies inter-agency sharing. In The Capability, these will be added to a searchable collection of passport and visa photographs.

While the majority of people initially took the initiative to mean that the federal government would in real-time be able to track any person entering sports arenas and malls, this won’t be part of The Capability – at least for the moment. The current plan is to use it in a retrospective capacity, for looking back over CCTV to ID suspects.

This is not the case in the Russian Republic though, which recently announced that it was adding facial-recognition technology to its network of 170,000 surveillance cameras in a move to identify criminals in real-time. While only select districts will have the technology installed, a recent two-month trial already resulted in six wanted people being identified from a federal “wanted” list and detained, Bloomberg News reported.

China too has been working on a facial-recognition system since 2015 to identify any member of its 1.3 billion citizens in 3 seconds but has been confronting a few technical issues.

NEC’s “NeoFace” technology can identify a person from a database of almost 2 million people in 0.3 seconds. In one independent test, it displayed a matching accuracy of 99.2 per cent. NeoFace measures the distance between the eyes, the width of the nose, depth of the eye sockets, shape of the cheekbones, and length of the jawline in order to make a positive match.

Not only can NEC’s facial-recognition technology recognise faces – it can also see which direction your eyes are looking at and whether your facial expression mood is sad or happy.

“We are proving a technology that can be used in so many different ways,” NEC Australia chief operation officer Mike Barber said in an interview. “It’s not up for us to decide how that’s to be utilized.”

“This technology is not all about watching people,” he added.

“It’s got so many other applications. We don’t [yet] know what all those applications are.”

While it was “introducing moral, ethical, and social aspects”, safety was top of the list, he stated.

“From my point of view, [when] you start looking at safety versus let’s not have any of this, then what would the general population really need?” he said

Facial-recognition technology doesn’t always work accurately though, as was discovered by London’s Met Cop squad recently, where civil liberties and human rights group Liberty’s senior advocate officer Silkie Carlo observed its use at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in August of 2017.

According to Carlo, it couldn’t tell the difference between a young woman and a balding man and falsely matched 35 people, five of which were pursued with interventions, meaning innocent members of the public were stopped who had, police later discovered, been falsely identified.

“What does real-time facial recognition mean for our rights?” Carlo asked.

“What are the risks? Does it have a place in a democracy at all?

“The answer is no. It is the stuff of dystopian literature for a reason.”

She added that the prospect of biometric checkpoints “overshadowing” public spaces was “plainly unacceptable and frankly frightening”.

“Like GPS surveillance, if facial recognition were rolled out across the country, the state would potentially have a biometric record of who goes where, when and with whom,” Carlo said.

“The technology isn’t there yet … but the risk to our freedom posed … is current and real.”

Tender documents reveal technology companies NEC, Daon, Cognitec and Unisys are regular suppliers of facial-recognition technology to the Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Contracts in the multi-millions have been awarded.

“The AFP confirms it utilises third-party facial recognition software,” an AFP spokesperson said. “Although the products are commercial off the shelf, we would not discuss the specific detail of the operational implementation of the capability, as that transgresses into security and law enforcement methodology.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, now housed within the newly formed Department of Home Affairs, said it used NEC’s NeoFace technology in its departures SmartGates, which are located at all Australian international airports.

The author travelled iEXPO2017 in Tokyo as a guest of NEC.

Henry Sapiecha

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