Trade rules could impact on regulation of facial recognition technology

January 21, 2020: A New York Times investigation reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that an American software company, established by Australian developer Hoan Ton-That, has developed ground-breaking facial recognition software that is being used without any regulation or public scrutiny by both public agencies and private companies in the US.

The software uses an algorithm that can scrape images from social media to identify individuals. It has been strongly criticised as an invasion of individual privacy open to abuse. Similar software has been used in China for mass surveillance.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported separately that different but similar software is being used by Victoria Police and some Australian schools.

The article quotes Dr Monique Mann, a senior lecturer in criminology at Deakin University and board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation, who on Sunday called for a ban or moratorium on use of facial recognition technology, saying its application can be “very dangerous”.

Dr Mann said the international experience was facial recognition technology was being outlawed given the human rights concerns. A significant difference existed between authorities using technology to verify identity such as at airports and searching databases to identify people.

The article also reports that Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow has also called for a "moratorium on the potentially harmful use of facial recognition technology in Australia until there is a legal framework to safeguard human rights.”

Meanwhile, the Australian government is playing a leading role in negotiations for an e-commerce agreement among 76 WTO member countries. They are being conducted behind closed doors and heavily influenced by Big Tech companies. who want less, rather than more regulation.

The government has supported proposals in other trade agreements that would prevent governments from gaining access to source code and algorithms which may be needed to regulate facial recognition technology. AFTINET and 314 other civil society organisations have argued in an open letter to governments that these trade rules could make it more difficult for governments to regulate to protect privacy and other human rights.

AFTINET will be making more detailed submission to government about how the e-commerce negotiations could limit a range of regulatory recommendations made by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in its Digital Platforms Report which recommended stronger regulation to protect privacy and other human rights.