Warrantless mass surveillance from CCTV cameras wired to a national facial recognition database is about to change Australia forever.
When you go through the turnstiles at a stadium or at concert venues, it will be reassuring to know that if anyone on the jihadi or fixated-individual watchlists is among the crowd, facial, biometric matching will instantaneously identify them with a flashing red alert on the security monitors.
All Australia’s big-venue operators are now engaged in developing what is called ‘interoperability’ through the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the AFP, state and territory police forces and all accredited private security contractors.
Bollards are not enough. They can partly protect crowded squares and spaces from cars and trucks used as lethal weapons. But they cannot stop someone with concealed guns or bombs getting into venues which have not deployed metal detectors.
After May’s Manchester stadium bombing, the awful truth about the vulnerability of big venues was exposed. And now after the Las Vegas massacre, all line-of-sight vantage points around venues have to be taken into security risk assessments before events.
Under pressure from the politicians to “keep Australians safe” in this, the age of lone wolf and copycat terror, the Joint Counter Terrorism Teams have extracted from the Prime Minister, premiers and territory chief ministers an agreement to move immediately to national facial recognition capability.
A top security expert told The New Daily that while clearly visible government and private security CCTV cameras can be linked to cover public and private areas including all building foyers, a network of strategically placed hidden cameras at high-risk sites can also be expected soon.
“What is the tactical use of video cameras if people can hide their faces behind a magazine or hat when they go through a camera zone?” the expert said.
Way beyond J Edgar Hoover’s fingerprinting
State and territory police already use number-plate recognition technology, but in a real-time terrorism emergency ‘interoperability’ can also include GPS tracking of persons of interest through their mobile phones if they have one.
After the Lindt Cafe siege in Martin Place, Sydney, all counter-terrorism units have trained marksmen (snipers) now working on new public safety protocols to shoot to kill their certified targets when a terror incident is declared.
And now all states and territories have agreed to hand over their drivers’ licence photos to be added to the Commonwealth’s now massive facial recognition database from visas, passports, citizenship, Centrelink and all federal agency IDs requiring photos.
The mere existence of this database will allow the authorities to determine just who is not on it and source missing ID photos elsewhere.
Through this data-matching, they hope to expose and eliminate false ID and stolen photos. They have the state and federal electoral rolls, and the listed and unlisted telephone directories and mobile phone SIM cards to help fill in the gaps. Facial recognition takes policing way beyond FBI director J Edgar Hoover’s fingerprinting first launched in the US in the 1920s.
While the COAG communique promised to accompany the new capability while “maintaining robust privacy safeguards”, exactly how privacy will be protected from abuse by unethical, unprofessional, incompetent or corrupt police or private security personnel, is yet to be spelt out.
In the age of terror, no one has a right to privacy
The fact is the right to privacy has already been overruled through Australia’s metadata retention laws (from October 2016) on all internet and telecommunications operators. Twenty-one law enforcement agencies from ASIO down now have warrantless access to all your digital communications, including GPS location tracking.
Significantly, the updated COAG counter-terrorism arrangements do not restrict the mass surveillance capability to counter-terrorism and venue protection alone. With the exception of the ACT government which put conditions on the use of its drivers’ licence photos, the capability can and will be used for general policing and big and small criminal investigations. Video recordings also could be subpoenaed in civil proceedings.
The usually ignored civil liberties lobby in Australia now appears to have a much stronger case for legislative protection for human rights including the ‘inviolate’ right to privacy in the likely event of abuse of these mass surveillance powers in future.
“Facial recognition technology has the potential to suppress freedom of expression. The impression that people are being ‘watched’ by the government makes them less likely to engage in dissent,” Liberty Victoria said.
Polls indicate trusting Australians will accept the loss of their privacy, hence bipartisan support for facial recognition surveillance and other 14-day no-charge detention measures for terror suspects.
Pending a debate about the need for a charter of human rights to balance any abuse of these privacy invading, extraordinary powers, in ASIO and the police we must trust.