Smile! This photo may be used against you in a court of law…

May 1, 2007

I’m kind of snowed under with work at the moment so I’ll try to be brief, but I had to express my horror at this as reported by the Age:

In a move condemned by civil libertarians, the police are seeking access to the driving licence photographs of almost every adult in the state.

It is part of a plan to introduce facial recognition technology as a crime-solving tool at police stations in the next 18 months.

Words escape me. Almost.

As I see it, there are two main areas to look at here. Firstly the obvious – civil liberty issues.”Wholesale surveillance” (which is based on watching everyone, just in case) has great forensic value to investigators, but also has enormous potential to encroach on the personal privacy of those being observed. This kind of system presumes potential guilt in everyone, and to my mind makes the dangerous precedent of shifting the burden of proof toward the defendant.
Also, in this case the licence photos are being used for a purpose for which they were not originally intended. What is there to prevent the whole facial recognition system being eventually repurposed in such a fashion? “Trust us, we won’t misuse it” isn’t really good enough.

The second major area of concern is the technology itself. The referenced article appeared accept the functionality of the technology as a given, without any supporting evidence or justification. Well, I’m not an expert in computer vision, but I’ve studied it as part of an Artificial Intelligence course, and last I heard there were still serious issues with facial recognition systems (just look at the problems with real-time facial recognition such as reported here). Presumably detailed specifications of the system to be employed will be restricted for security reasons, but such new and unproven technology gives rise to many unanswered (and for that matter, apparently unasked) questions. What is the accuracy of the system? How high is the rate of false negatives? False positives? For that matter, what is the cost of a false positive? If the system to be used to trawl for potential matches as a line to further investigation the cost is relatively low, but if search results are used as evidence or probable cause then that is a much more serious issue.

And of course, as with any such database, how secure is it? A spokesman for the Victorian Police reassured us:

Sergeant Spry said measures had been put in place to protect people’s privacy and to prevent hacking.

Is he serious? People who are experts in computer security can’t stop systems being hacked. The only way to ensure that a system is safe from hacking or abuse is to not build it in the first place. And as to privacy, any supposed “measures” to protect peoples privacy bear very little weight with me until audited by an independent body with expertise in the field.

Liberty Victoria vice-president Michael Pearce said:

“This would be a breach of the Government’s own privacy principles, which restrict the use of information to the purpose for which it was provided,” he said.

Mr Pearce rejected the suggestion that people with nothing to hide should not be concerned.

“That’s the sort of argument that was popular in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and has no credence at all in a free society,” he said.

The old faithful “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you shouln’t have anything to worry about” argument-from-stupidity continues to be tangential to the point really – privacy isn’t just about hiding wrongdoings, it’s also about not having to share information that is no-one else’s business. Do you tell everyone you meet your salary? How many people you’ve slept with? The length of your penis? Your breast size? How often you go to the toilet? Of course not – and not because you’ve done something wrong – but because, well, it’s private.
Systems like this seem to get through on the idea that security and privacy are mutually exclusive, that somehow you have to give up one to get the other, but this is just not the case. Look at aircraft security systems post 911: ridiculously invasive, inconvenient and reactive screening procedures, restrictions on personal carry-on items and watch-lists rife with false positives. Yet the measures most likely prevent a recurrence of these incidents are reinforced cockpit doors, passengers who know that they have to fight for their lives and money spent on investigation, none of which have anything to do with passenger privacy.

Giving up your privacy doesn’t make you more secure, just more naked.

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