Illustration: Sam Bennett
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 that 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 say facial recognition may eventually be considered as credible as fingerprints, but images on their database are not being shared with state police forces. Sharing images on a national database could be possible by 2015.
The president of Australian Councils for Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, said it was troubling that technologies such as facial and number plate recognition had become so widespread and there appeared to be no independent monitoring of the impacts on privacy.
The justification for widespread CCTV has also been questioned, with a report by police in London, the most spied-upon city in the world, showing that only one crime was solved per 1000 cameras.
An AFP forensic and data centres biometrics co-ordinator, Simon Walsh, said international agencies were determined to develop facial recognition technology so that images could be used as evidence to confirm an offender's identity in court.
''We've seen some examples where [police] investigating other crime types such as organised crime or people smuggling have looked at the system to see if it can assist in investigations, 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 its 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.
Dr Walsh said he hoped a national facial images database with information from state police forces was closer to becoming reality. He said the next year of the system would focus on ensuring awareness within the AFP of its capabilities.
NSW police use facial recognition technology only to identify people already in their database of previous offenders, suspects and photographic crime scene evidence.
The force takes more than 1 million images each year as part of its investigations and has the ability to run the technology over all of these.
Inspector David Brogden said facial recognition technology was usually used only as a secondary investigative tool to corroborate other evidence. In the future, it will be used to match more clothing, firearms, vehicles, tattoos and graffiti.
Garner Clancey, the deputy director of the Sydney Institute of Criminology, warned against the proliferation of cameras for the purpose of facial recognition technology. He said there were questions over whether the huge costs were justified in an era when crime rates are falling.
''Crimes like motor vehicle theft and burglaries are falling,'' he said. ''Do we then say there's a point where cameras aren't cost-effective, so we turn them off?''
Mr O'Gorman quoted the 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.''