Facial Recognition Still A Flawed Technology

How biometric surveillance is spreading throughout society

You might be familiar with electronic facial recognition. It’s the biometric technology that allows Facebook to suggest which of your friends might be in your pictures. Perhaps you use facial recognition to unlock your phone or an app.

It’s also being used at border security to compare your actual face with the one on your passport. It works by identifying the various features of your face and matching them against a database of faces.

This is convenient and secure, but the next frontier of this technology is in biometric surveillance – where authorities, or other agencies, may be able to identify you in any public space.

So could your face be a ticket to police tracking your every movement?

China has been tracking its citizens in this way since 2005, and UK authorities started trials into using this technology last year. But so far the results have been decidedly mixed.

British police used the technology at last year’s Notting Hill carnival, but a report later found that the system was wrong 98% of the time, with 102 false positives, when a person flagged by the software as a suspect turned out to be someone else entirely. Sometimes it didn’t even get the gender of the person correct.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Brian Lovell has developed a security program that uses facial recognition. And he thinks it’s inevitable that the use of the technology will become widespread for law enforcement.

“I think if you just track honest citizens and give their details of where they are and so on that’s a big invasion of privacy,” Professor Lovell admits. “But you also have the right not to be blown up or driven over by trucks and so on, and there’s some people in society that want to do that, so you have to trade these things off.”

But the President of the Law Council of Australia, Morry Bailes, is concerned that you can’t have one without the other.

“We won’t know if our data, our facial data is being used to compare with a person who is suspected of a crime. We may be involved in a virtual or electronic lineup on many occasions without even knowing our data is being used,” he says.

The plan is for all our biometric identity information to be stored in what’s known as “the interoperability hub” – which would potentially be open to be accessed by people at all levels of government, and even private entities.

“There ought to be discussions like this with the Australian public,” Mr Bailes says, “so we can make proper, informed decisions about what we want our Parliament to have of our biometric data and where to leave their hands off.”