Facial recognition – government thinking of selling access to our faces

So the Government is contemplating selling access to its facial recognition database. Nothing to worry about there, move right along.

The premise is simple: The  government will sell access on a transnational basis to the facial recognition data – ie your face that you provided on your passport or drivers licence.  Businesses can buy access to verify your identity.

The worry here isn’t so much that this compromises the government’s data; although I don’t remember agreeing that my passport photos could be used for other stuff, that seems to be modern life. The worry is in many ways that by doing this they encourage banks and others to build up their own database of photos that they’ve verified against the government one, and who knows where that one could get sold, or lost, to.

But is that really something to be worried about? I don’t know.

I can sympathise with the knee-jerk reaction that this is all getting out of control and basic levels of privacy and security are being eroded. More and more stuff about us is being recorded and used to facilitate transactions, it’s less and less in our control, and no one has a fabulous record of not losing control of the data once it has been gathered. If the NSA can be hacked, what does ‘secure’ really mean?

On the other hand is facial recognition any different to other forms of identification – your signature, your driver’s licence number, your fingerprint, and so on? On one level, no; there’s already a pile of stuff held by governments and businesses designed to identify you.  And, in some ways it might be better because you have more physical control over your actual face for physical transactions.

But imagine someone with illicit access to facial recognition data directly tied to people’s identity being able to look at any photo on the internet and being able to identify the people in the photo and get their address and other details. Now that seems a bit more scary.

Here’s another perhaps more benign, but more likely because this could be legal, scenario: you get automatically identified as you walk into any shop – they know your name, your income, your spending habits, all about you just by capturing your face on camera.

It is this sort of thing that makes facial recognition different: far more than any other thing, your face is ‘you’ to the rest of the world. You’re intrinsically walking about showing your identifying feature off in a way which does not apply to a signature or a fingerprint. It’s your face, that’s just the way it is.

Here’s the thing: at some time in the future all this will come to pass. How could it not? But this isn’t necessarily the bleeding-edge that Australia needs to be at the forefront of just so the government can raise a few extra dollars from selling database access.

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