Model law proposed to control ‘Wild West’ of facial recognition technology in Australia

Model law proposed to control ‘Wild West’ of facial recognition technology in Australia

Civil society groups are urging the federal government to take up a model law that would govern the use of facial recognition technology in Australia, where legislative loopholes risk creating a “Wild West”.

Drafted by the Human Technology Institute, the proposed rules would impose new obligations on both companies developing or distributing facial recognition systems and any entity deploying them, including police and employers.

The call comes amid growing alarm about the use of the technology by law enforcement, schools and, as consumer advocates CHOICE found in June, even popular stores such as Bunnings and Kmart.

There is also widespread agreement that Australia’s existing privacy regime — currently under review by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus — is not keeping pace with the threats posed by emerging technology.

Edward Santow, former Human Rights Commissioner and co-author of the model code at the University of Technology Sydney, said Australian privacy law wasn’t drafted in anticipation of the “extraordinary rise” of facial recognition.

“We also know that the Privacy Act has as many holes as Swiss cheese,” he said.

“It’s riddled with exceptions and exemptions and so provides very limited protection.”

Kate Bower, a consumer data advocate with CHOICE, said her team is seeing growing use of facial recognition without clear guardrails.

CHOICE is endorsing the model law.

“If there is a chance of discrimination or bias or potentially harmful situations … then it puts some safeguards in place, or at least makes the hurdles very very high,” Ms Bower said.

‘The worst of all worlds’

The use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement has been under increasing scrutiny in Australia and overseas, but a comprehensive regulatory regime has proved evasive.

In 2020, the Australian Federal Police admitted that staff had trialled controversial software Clearview AI, which scrapes public images to provide what amounts to a face search engine.

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