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Police and councils in Australian cities have begun quietly integrating facial recognition systems with their CCTV camera networks, as other jurisdictions seriously consider introducing the same technology, despite concerns from privacy groups about the data being hacked or misused.

INQUIRER: Surveillance cameras with AI are watching you

An investigation by The Aust­ralian can reveal that police in Mel­bourne­ and Perth use facial recog­nition technology with CCTV vision, and Gold Coast and Hobart authorit­ies are invest­igating the implement­ation of the technology that de­tects and rec­ords every individual who passes by a camera with the capability.

The revelations come as ex­perts­ express concern over a lack of regulation and the risk that private­ biometric data recorded without the public’s consent could be hacked, warning that the move to roll out the technology was “unleashing something really difficult to pull back from”.

The technology is the same as that used by London CCTV cameras­ to combat the risk of terro­r attacks and by China’s social­ credit surveillance system, which tracks citizens’ movements and behaviour and stores inform­ation on a national database.

The Australian understands that facial recognition in Melbourne and Perth is not yet linked to a database. In its current operation in the two cities, police send an image of a person of interest — either a criminal, suspect or missing person — to the CCTV operat­ors at the city councils, who set the network of cameras to track down the individual.

It is understood that while the facial recognition is not routinely searching for individuals, CCTV recordings would be capable of being analysed with the technol­ogy in the future.

While the City of Perth council had announced that a trial of the mass surveillance technology would take place, no such announcement was made in Melbour­ne. Authorities in both cities did not formally notify the public when it was activated.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman told The Australian the force “utilises facial recognition technology for investigative and ­intelligence-gathering purposes” across the City of Melbourne council’s network of 138 surveillance cameras, but was unable to provide further information about how long it had been in use.

A City of Perth spokesman confirmed to The Australian that its 12-month facial recognition trial across East Perth had begun, and that police have had access.

Perth’s trial is limited, with only three CCTV cameras in the city’s network of 470 able to use the technology at any one time.

When contacted by The Australian yesterday, a spokesman for West Australian Police Minister Michelle Roberts said she was unaware the trial had been turned on, with police not required to inform government of the decision.

Spokesmen from the Gold Coast and Hobart city councils told The Australian that while they were not currently using facial­ recognition in CCTV, they would continue to investigate it.

Sven Bluemmel, the Victorian Information Commissioner, said although citizens didn’t want a societ­y where they were “subjected to routine surveillance”, there was “good reason” for the targeted use of facial recognition on an individual investigation basis.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner said turning on such tech­nology unannounced “is likely to have a significant impact on individuals, and could be perceived as privacy intrusive”. “Sensitive personal inform­ation requires high levels of protection,” it said.

Lyndsey Jackson, chairwoman of Electronic Frontiers Australia, said Australia had “very little regulation” around the use of the technology, and raised concern about biometric data being hacked. “We’re unleashing something really difficult to pull back from,’’ she said. “There’s a critical problem with the storage of biometric data and what happens with those big breaches. You can change your PIN number but you can’t change your face.”

Facial recognition is also in use in CCTV cameras at stadiums in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, to match spectators to a database of banned patrons. RMIT and other universities are also experimenting with using the technol­ogy to stamp out impersonators sitting exams for students.

The use of facial recognition technology is permitted under the Privacy Act of 1988.


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