Australian government proposes facial recognition system to verify age for internet pornography

The Australian government has proposed using facial recognition scans to verify the age of internet users seeking to access pornography.

Under the proposals, the faces of computer users would be matched to government-held images from official identity documents.

But the plans are unlikely to go far for now. Parliament first needs to approve a central database holding the matching biometric data. Concerns over privacy safeguards have so far blocked the relevant legislation.

The facial recognition proposals in Australia come after the UK dropped its plans earlier this month to require age-verification for online pornography, with the government citing technical gaps.

The plans in Australia are part of a move by the Department of Home Affairs to use its face verification service and document verification service across various public services and sectors of the economy too.

But the drive to gather vast amounts of personal data has raised concerns among privacy campaigners and human rights organisations.

Green Senator Nick McKim told The Telegraph the latest “bizarre proposal” for pornography would constitute “a gross breach of privacy” and “continue Australia’s slide into becoming a surveillance state”. 

How facial recognition technology works

“We remain the only liberal democracy in the world that does not have a charter or bill of rights, and until we have one this government will take every chance it can to erode fundamental rights and freedoms,” he said.

Stilgherrian, a veteran cyber-security journalist and privacy expert, who goes by one name, told The Telegraph the proposal could see the government “have a list of every porn site you have chosen to visit”.

“The Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security said ‘no, the privacy controls are not good enough’ yet (Home Affairs Minister) Dutton wants to push ahead. They are brainstorming on what they can do with facial recognition technology without thinking about the downsides,” he said.

The Australian proposal comes as authorities in many cities across the United States are debating the use of facial recognition systems in surveillance by police departments. Earlier this year San Francisco became the first major US city to ban the technology.

Last month, a British court ruled that police use of facial recognition systems does not violate privacy and human rights.

While Boris Johnson’s Government has dropped its “porn block” plan, earlier this month the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Warman, said the British government could use facial recognition to verify age to access pornographic material "so long as there is an appropriate concern for privacy".

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