Facial recognition is on the rise – but the law is lagging a long way behind

facial recognition is on the rise – but the law is lagging a long way behind

Private companies and public authorities are quietly using facial recognition systems around Australia.

Despite the growing use of this controversial technology, there is little in the way of specific regulations and guidelines to govern its use.

Spying on shoppers

We were reminded of this fact recently when consumer advocates at CHOICE revealed that major retailers in Australia are using the technology to identify people claimed to be thieves and troublemakers.

There is no dispute about the goal of reducing harm and theft. But there is also little transparency about how this technology is being used.

CHOICE found that most people have no idea their faces are being scanned and matched to stored images in a database. Nor do they know how these databases are created, how accurate they are, and how secure the data they collect is.

As CHOICE discovered, the notification to customers is inadequate. It comes in the form of small, hard-to-notice signs in some cases. In others, the use of the technology is announced in online notices rarely read by customers.

The companies clearly don’t want to draw attention to their use of the technology or to account for how it is being deployed.


Police are eager

Something similar is happening with the use of the technology by Australian police. Police in New South Wales, for example, have embarked on a “low-volume” trial of a nationwide face-recognition database. This trial took place despite the fact that the enabling legislation for the national database has not yet been passed.

In South Australia, controversy over Adelaide’s plans to upgrade its CCTV system with face-recognition capability led the city council to vote not to purchase the necessary software. The council has also asked South Australia Police not to use face-recognition technology until legislation is in place to govern its use.

However, SA Police have indicated an interest in using the technology.

In a public statement, the police described the technology as a potentially useful tool for criminal investigations. The statement also noted:

There is no legislative restriction on the use of facial recognition technology in South Australia for investigations.

A controversial tool

Adelaide City Council’s call for regulation is a necessary response to the expanding use of automated facial recognition.

This is a powerful technology that promises to fundamentally change our experience of privacy and anonymity. There is already a large gap between the amount of personal information collected about us every day and our own knowledge of how this information is being used, and facial recognition will only make the gap bigger.

Recent events suggest a reluctance on the part of retail outlets and public authorities alike to publicise their use of the technology.


Although it is seen as a potentially useful tool, it can be a controversial one. A world in which remote cameras can identify and track people as they move through public space seems alarmingly Orwellian.

The technology has also been criticised for being invasive and, in some cases, biased and inaccurate. In the US, for example, people have already been wrongly arrested based on matches made by face-recognition systems.

Public pushback

There has also been widespread public opposition to the use of the technology in some cities and states in the US, which have gone so far as to impose bans on its use.

Surveys show the Australian public have concerns about the invasiveness of the technology, but that there is also support for its potential use to increase public safety and security.

Facial-recognition technology isn’t going away. It’s likely to become less expensive and more accurate and powerful in the near future. Instead of implementing it piecemeal, under the radar, we need to directly confront both the potential harms and benefits of the technology, and to provide clear rules for its use.

What would regulations look like?

Last year, then human rights commissioner Ed Santow called for a partial ban on the use of facial-recognition technology. He is now developing model legislation for how it might be regulated in Australia.

Any regulation of the technology will need to consider both the potential benefits of its use and the risks to privacy rights and civic life.

It will also need to consider enforceable standards for its proper use. These could include the right to correct inaccurate information, the need to provide human confirmation for automated forms of identification, and the setting of minimum standards of accuracy.

They could also entail improving public consultation and consent around the use of the technology, and a requirement for the performance of systems to be accountable to an independent authority and to those researching the technology.

As the reach of facial recognition expands, we need more public and parliamentary debate to develop appropriate regulations for governing its use.


If you’re in Adelaide, there will be a public forum on regulating facial recognition technology at the Town Hall tonight (Monday, June 27). Ed Santow and his colleague Lauren Perry will present their model legislation, and they will be joined in discussion by South Australian parliamentarian Tammy Franks and Law Society of South Australia president Justin Stewart-Rattray.

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White Water Rafting or KayakingMount Fuji Overnight Climb ItinerarySip & Gogh Paint Studio: Unleash Your Inner Van Gogh | LakwatseroBatanes ItineraryHow to Get to Quitinday HillsAbout Callao CaveDiscover LakawonBiking to Taal: A Fun Ride to Batangas’ Heritage TownAntique Blooming: The Rafflesia of San RemigioMalasimbo Lights and Dance FestivalBacolod ItineraryPoon HillAttractions in Mirador Heritage and Eco ParkHulhumale Public BeachRomblon Island: Bonbon Beach, Tiamban Beach & MoreAdventure in Sabah: White Water Rafting in Padas River | LakwatseroHow to Get to Hinakpan Mystical HillsWelcome to Lake SebuAbout CasiguranAbout BuscalanHow to Go to Kalanggaman IslandFaro de Cabo Bojeador (Cape Bojeador Lighthouse)Backpacking Maldives: Budget Itinerary, Expenses & TipsHow to Get ThereOffbeat Bohol Itinerary: 3D/2N of AdventuresHow to Get to Tawi-TawiAlona BeachPangilatan Falls: The Forgotten Gem of Tapaz, CapizWorld War I: SMS Cormoran II3D/2N Taiwan Itinerary: Taipei – Yehliu – ShiffenLaos for Backpackers: Getting There on a BudgetBasic RequirementsHow to Get to Antong FallsCathedral CaveHow to Go to Gubat, SorsogonAbout SadangaHow to Get to Bugui Point LighthouseHow to Get to Cabra Island LighthouseCebu Itinerary: Three-Day Adventures in the SouthAbout AndaLuna: A Day in the Show Window of Apayao | LakwatseroMargues Blue LagoonFinding Palaui’s Cape Engaño Lighthouse | LakwatseroHow to Get to Mantayupan Falls of Barili, CebuHow to Get to MaligcongLinapacan Islands: Between Paradise | LakwatseroKLIA to KLCCHow to Get to JomaligBanaug ShoalEspadang Bato – Payaran Falls Day Hike Itinerary10 Remarkable Philippine Destinations for Solo TravelMiagao Church: A UNESCO World Heritage Site in IloiloAbout Carbin ReefAbout Parola IslandCabra WreckageCobra Falls: Ozamiz City’s Best Kept SecretBasco: The Chapel on the Hill of Tukon | LakwatseroBack in Kathmandu’s Lovely Mess | LakwatseroHimalayan Adventure: Kathmandu to Pokhara Overland | LakwatseroItineraryChinatown Vancouver (Stop #23)Situbo Falls: Tampilisan's Awesome SurpriseHow to Get to Inambakan FallsTuasan Falls: Another Camiguin’s Charmer | LakwatseroHow to Get to Lake SebuMarinduque Loop: Biking in the Heart of the Philippines1. 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