Richard Chirgwin

The face of Australia’s facial recognition argument

The media response to the government’s facial recognition database is missing one important point. It will merely make the haystack larger, and the needles more difficult to find. 



I didn’t really want to write about this, but Australian journalists are falling over their authoritarian impulses over the national facial recognition database, so here we go.

Here, Trevor Long predicates the issue as being a question of “do you trust the government?”

The short answer is “no, I don’t”, when politicians can use their access to personal information to dox people who complain about them, but it’s deeper than that.

It’s not about “the government”: it’s about the federal government, six state governments, two territory governments, and several agencies at each level of government (my name is Legion, so to speak), among them several police services with a history of abusing their access to data, and so on.

Not to mention that “trust the government” also demands we trust its ability to manage the system, to let contracts without being gulled by vendors, to secure it in perpetuity — none of which fills me with confidence.

Long and David Speers, here, says the database will make it easier to respond to someone on a terror watch-list turning up at, say, a sports event.

A national database of every face will make it harder, not easier.

It’s like this: if someone’s already known to authorities, they already have his/her photo. If you want to match “CCTV image” (call it A) against “photo in files” (B), you want “B database” to be optimised, not maximised.

Roughly, the database command:


… will execute just fine on a Raspberry Pi if the database “WATCH_LIST” has 2,000 rows; make it 14 million rows, and you’ll need a lot more grunt.

To oversimplify, a needle is easy to find in a matchbox, much harder in a hay-bale. I suspect the push to make the biggest database possible comes from how-good-is-this vendor presentations, whose interest is to sell bigger stuff.

The appeal to inevitability — “you can’t stop this happening” — can be dismissed out of hand. We have a democratic right to try, even if in failing all we do is force better transparency on how facial recognition is used.

“There are safeguards against abuse” is a lame argument. I haven’t seen a federal minister in handcuffs over abusing access to data, and even when a policeman gets charged for abusing access to information, redress is too late and too small for a harm already done.

About “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”: proportionality matters. Ms Dhu had unpaid fines to hide; she died in custody.

And there’s the abandonment of the journalist’s role to consider here. If you’d rather be a cheerleader for government than its antagonist, there are dozens of suitable jobs listed on Seek.