Quietly and seamlessly, one of the biggest advances in surveillance technology is being rolled out by law enforcement agencies across Australia. It is a facial recognition system called “The Capability”, and is pretty much as creepy as it sounds.
At a cost of $18.5 million, The Capability — which launched here in September — is a verification service that will cross-reference 100 million images of our faces. That’s just over four images of every Australian, including stills from CCTV footage as well as photos from drivers’ licenses, passports and other identification documents that the agencies have access to.
Combined with recent upgrades to make the definition of CCTV cameras in New South Wales one thousand times better – the stills they used to produce were too grainy to make a match — it’s going to be pretty hard to keep your face safe from identification.
It’s not particularly strange that Australia has adopted this technology – the UK and the US rolled out similar technology in 2014. What is strange is that there has been almost no public discussion about it.
Some privacy advocates have raised concerns, including Patrick Gray — cyber security journalist and commentator — who has called the new technology out for being “creepy”. Dr Adam Henschke, a National Security Research Fellow at ANU, also published some worrying analysis via the St James Ethics Centre blog: “A lack of oversight could also lead to information being used in ways that are both irresponsible and harmful to innocent people,” he wrote.
In fact — most scarily of all — it seems like no one really cares.
Surveillance Is Already Here
So why has the announcement been met with such a tepid response?
One possible explanation is that that privacy advocates are overreacting to a technology that’s going to benefit law enforcement agencies, with pros that outweigh the cons. Entrepeneur Professor Brian Lovell played down concerns, telling the ABC that the level of surveillance facilitated by The Capability is really no different to small town life. “If you’re in a small town, like a small village, everybody recognises everyone else and everyone seems to get on quite well,” he says, “and when a stranger comes into town, they can’t sort of rob all the houses ’cause everybody notices them.”
This is a fair point — until you realise that not everybody in the village had a photographic memory, nor were they members of a law enforcement agency with the power to charge you with criminal offences.
Which brings us to an alternate explanation that is far more worrying: that we are already so used to living in a surveillance society that we’re not really concerned about losing more of our privacy. If nothing bad has happened yet, it’s hard to conceive of any real consequences.
As Patrick Gray told Junkee, “[These techniques have] become entrenched. It’s the perfect example of the boiling frog and slippery slope metaphors. In this case, however, the frog is already cooked — and we’re most of the way down the slope.”