5 Feb 2019

Surveillance of Australians has taken a huge step into the unknown. Beware it could easily be misused and we could become patsies because of high error rates in identification.

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Cause for concern

Given the vast amounts of information gathered through surveillance, it might seem reasonable to assume that individuals will never be scrutinised unless they raise suspicion (one hopes, reasonably).

However, improvement in data-processing capabilities means this is not necessarily true. For example, artificial intelligence can analyse CCTV video footage without human input.

And when face recognition is used to identify suspects, there are often multiple records of images of people who are a close match to the suspect. This can result in a high error rate, posing a risk that innocent people are accused of criminality and wrongdoing.

Read more: Close up: the government's facial recognition plan could reveal more than just your identity

But perhaps more worrying is the threat of repurposing — when information collected for one purpose is used for another. For example, concerns that insurance companies could access and use information from My Health Record led to the government amending legislation to prevent this.

But, unlike My Health Record data, surveillance data collection is indiscriminate and has no “opt out”. Consider the two years’ worth of communications metadata currently stored for the entire nation, which is accessible to many agencies without a warrant. It’s not certain how this data might be reused in the future.

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