7 Reasons the ALP Must Oppose A National Facial Recognition Database

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Today I wrote to David Feeney’s electorate office to explain why they must oppose the Turnbull Government’s proposed National Facial Recognition program. I currently don’t have a State MP, but we should be deeply worried by Daniel Andrew’s position that civil liberties are a “luxury” we can’t afford.

Dear Mr Feeney,

I spoke to someone in your office today about the government’s proposed facial recognition database. Your staffer however, was not even aware of the issue, let alone you position on it. I have to say that I am disappointed such a huge step forwards in mass surveillance is getting such a small amount of attention. I really do hope that the ALP will oppose the measures before it is too late, which is why I am writing to you today.

Before I list the many reasons that a facial recognition database is a terrifying notion, I would like to make the point that this is not happening in isolation and it is important to see it as part of a pattern of ever increasing surveillance and disappearing democratic space. Mandatory data retention; laws that attack the right to protest in NSW, Tasmania and WA; ongoing attacks on the charity and DGR status on environmental organisations; tapping of union delegate phones; I could go on. Democratic space in Australia is being shrunk.

Even this facial recognition proposal is part of a package; the government is going to increase the powers of police to detain people without warrants from 7 to 14 days (which was already increased under Howard). Premier Andrews has already announced plans to give police powers to declare “special areas” where police can search homes, cars and people without a warrant. These powers only ever creep up, they do not get rolled back. They are a very real threat to our democracy.

Here are the many reasons that the ALP should be forcefully opposing a national facial recognition database.

  1. It will be misused – The mandatory data retention scheme, introduced by this current federal government with the ALP’s support has already had at least one public incidence of misuse against a journalist. If the ability to track people’s movement’s in real time is created, it will be misused. We know this because it happens every time.
  2. The scope will creep – There have already been proposals from senators to increase the scope of the technology to police and monitor welfare recipients. It’s built into the proposal that private companies will be given access to this database. And there is absolutely no doubt that the scope will creep from terrorism, to major crime, to petty theft, to traffic tickets, to monitoring activists. It will happen because it always happens. Turnbull has already flagged that it will likely be matched with data from social media profiles. Mandatory metadata retention is also a good guide here. A list of government departments requesting  internet history without a warrant published last year includes, amongst many others, Greyhound Racing Victoria, Department of Mines and Petroleum (WA), Consumer Affairs Victoria and Bankstown City Council. The scope will creep.
  3. It will be hackedThe Australian government does not have a very good record when it comes to IT security. It will be hacked, whether it is by hostile governments, corporations or simply just to get the data and sell it. This is a big target and it will be targeted.
  4. It will be used to target activists and unions, it always is – I know, I sound like I’m wearing my ton-foil hat. But police surveillance of activists is well documented. Here is Martin Ferguson asking the AFP to increase surveillance of environmental activists. Going back a bit further, the Victorian Police were infiltrating activist groups and presumably still are. A program in the UK had more than 100 undercover cops infiltrate activist groups, with two undercover cops fathering children, one of those police officers was in Australia training our police in those tactics. ASIO’s tracking of activists is especially well documented.
  5. It will have a chilling effect on freedom of assembly, speech, movement and other political activity – Given the above, I don’t think I am overreaching when I say that constant, mass surveillance is not good for political participation. In fact, it is very, very bad that your every move could potentially be tracked, both online and in the real world.
  6. It’s racist (and a bit sexist)Experience from the US has found that facial recognition programs misidentified females and people of colour. Combined with the fact it will definitely be used to target activists, we can expect that the impacts of this technology will be to commit further violence against indigenous people in Australia.
  7. This is literally the premise of 1984 – I regret to use this terribly overused literary reference, but it’s apt.

I hope this helps you make the right decision. I am happy to talk about this at any time.

James Clark

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