Smile, you may be on a federal police camera

ABOUT 15,000 people have had images of their faces captured on an Australian Federal Police database in its first year of operation, igniting fears the rise of facial-recognition systems will lead to CCTV cameras being installed on every street corner.

The database includes pictures of alleged criminals who may not know their images are on file.

The AFP says facial recognition may eventually be considered as credible as fingerprints, but images on its database are not being shared with state police forces. Sharing images on a national database could be possible by 2015.

Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman said it was troubling that technologies such as facial and number plate recognition had become widespread and there appeared to be no independent monitoring of the impacts on privacy.

AFP forensic and data centres biometrics co-ordinator Dr Simon Walsh said international agencies were determined to develop facial-recognition technology so images could be used as evidence to confirm an offender's identity in court.

The AFP was unable to confirm the number of investigations the system had been used for, but said it was accessed most frequently in cases of identity fraud. Counter-terrorism and organised crime investigators have also used the system.

''We've seen some examples where [police] investigating other crime types, such as organised crime or people smuggling, have looked at the system … and they've had really good outcomes,'' Dr Walsh said. ''Certainly, the system is working the way we want it to; we're just in the process of trying to increase it's application.''

In several investigations, witness descriptions of offenders were used by forensic artists to construct a facial image that was then matched to an image in the database, leading to the identification of the offender.

Most images on the system were captured once an offender was taken into custody. The system started in February last year and no images captured before then have been uploaded. It had been in development since 2008.

Dr Walsh said he hoped a national facial images database with information from state police would become a reality. He said the next year of the system would focus on ensuring awareness within the AFP of its capabilities.

VicRoads is already using facial-recognition technology to scan millions of driving licences to check for identity fraud.

Fairfax reported last year that the federal Attorney-General's office estimates that identity fraud costs the country more than $4 billion annually, with the cost to Victoria conservatively estimated to be about $200 million.

Victoria Police also uses facial recognition, with about 400,000 people on its database.

Mr O'Gorman summarised his concerns by quoting former British information commissioner Richard Thomas, who said in 2004 that the country was ''sleepwalking into a surveillance society''.

''If police started to stop large numbers of Australians in the street to say, 'Who are you, we want to make sure you are who you say you are', there would be outrage,'' Mr O'Gorman said.

''This does precisely that, without them knowing.

''There is a role for digital technology to capture a face on a CCTV to assist to solve a crime … but one suspects this is going much beyond capturing the images of arrestees and legitimate people of suspicion.''

nbucci@theage.com.au

The story Smile, you may be on a federal police camera first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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