Privacy fears hike as Australia turns to biometrics for mass surveillance

Should Australia roll out a mass identification program like India's Aadhaar?

Biometric facial scanning of a man
Image: Cambodia, P.I. Network, Flickr, Some rights reserved

As the world moves online with technological development and dependence, it is inevitable that biometric identity systems are increasingly used as a global method to combat crime and improve verification processes (Jacobsen, 2012).

India has been significantly ahead on digitalising its identification system with its implementation of Aadhaar, a biometric identification program known to be of the largest scale in the world. While governments have been providing a number of reasons why biometric identity systems are necessary to protect national security, there are also arguments that claim these are excuses for privacy violations and mass surveillance.

As such, this essay aims to explore the applicability of biometric governance in Australia in reference to Aadhaar. First, the historical origins of biometric identification will be described in a global sense to open the path on how it took place in both Australia and India. Second, opportunities and challenges of biometric identification systems will be explored and critically analysed. The following will conclude on why it is suitable to apply in certain national security related situations, but not fitting to extend its usage towards other living purposes in Australia.

What are biometrics?

Biometric identification is defined as an automated means of authenticating a person’s identity through their unique physiological and behavioural characteristics.

Examples of physiological biometric identifiers include fingerprints, DNA, and the size, shape, and patterns of one’s hand and facial features, while behavioural identifiers consist of keystroke dynamics, writing style, and voice patterns. Though biometric identification may sound like a new innovation emerging in the 21st century, it has been discovered that its uses date back to the ancient times of 6000 B.C. (Chaudhari, Pawar, & Deore, 2013).

Throughout the years, biometric identification has undergone several transformations. The first records of set body measurements known as Bertillonage in the 1890s showed the early processes of using fingerprints to identify criminals. Further improvements to the biometric system during the 1900s displayed a rise to its systemic implementation in India, UK, and the US. But, the greatest contribution to its proliferation is the terrorist events on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent “war on terror” (Wilson, 2007, p.207). Under growing political tension, its motivated significant nations including Australia to adopt biometric technologies as a surveillance method to ensure national security.

 

Scanning fingerprint to verify Aadhaar biometric identity
Scanning fingerprint to verify Aadhaar biometric identity, Image: BMN Network, Flickr, Some rights reserved

 

Similar concerns arising within India aided by existing influence of British colonial surveillance also led to the development of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009. Renamed to Aadhaar in 2010, the program issued a twelve-digit ID number linked with their biometric and demographic data to over 1.2 billion people in India to build its biometric identity database (Greenleaf, 2010). The government reasoned that such regulation is required because it could eliminate false identity problems through identity verifications and enable a reliable welfare service system for socioeconomically disadvantaged groups to access greater government subsidies.

Why “Yes”?

Hacking computer data, Image: Blogtrepreneur, Flickr, Some rights reserved

 

With rising concerns on the dangers of social media use and user vulnerabilities to data collection, it is argued that biometric user authentication can enable a safer social networking experience online (Chang and Schroeter, 2010). For example, toxic technocultures are fostered through platforms enabling significant anonymity such as Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter (Massanari, 2017). Although there are policies in place, they are inadequate in protecting users from targeted harassment when there are no verification practices imposed to encourage accountability.

This indicates users can lie, spam, troll, and steal passwords at ease with their identities hidden. However, these problems can potentially be solved through biometrics that can legitimately and uniquely prove one’s identity. It can verify that the person using an account is the one who registered for it, as well as effectively deter or track racist, discriminatory, and fraudulent behaviours online (Chang and Schroeter, 2010). Thus, applying biometric identification processes on social media networking sites can improve cyber security and safety for internet users.

Man cleared as risk-free by facial detection at airport, Image: Delta News Hub, Flickr, Some rights reserved

 

Aside from identity crimes online, it is also advantageous in acting as a strategy to prevent them in the real world where it could work to not only combat terrorists, but also enable better management of asylum seekers in Australia. This is evidently shown with government support in which the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) had emphasised that creating a biometric database of asylum seekers could raise the level of Australia’s border security against “illegal” migrants, terrorism, and immigration fraud (Wilson, 2007, p. 211). Furthermore, biometric processing systems and artificial intelligence technology are claimed to speed up border and airport operations, as travellers can avoid long queues from manual processing.

Moreover, similar to the purpose of Aadhaar, adopting biometric governance could significantly improve government services including Centrelink payments, Tax lodgments, Road and Maritime Services (RMS), Medicare, and public services like elections and transport. Automating these traditionally manual systems are argued to strengthen accountability, authenticity, security, and save time and costs.

For example, there have been issues with fraud and fare evasion due to Opal card loopholes in New South Wales (NSW). With biometric installations, fare evaders can be better detected compared to human Opal inspectors, which can subsequently raise efficiency of public transport operations.

 

Why “No”?

Facial recognition software scan, Image: kentkb, Flickr, Some rights reserved

 

It should be noted that biometric databases are not simply collected for verification purposes, but they are also used for risk profiling through automated comparisons to “standard face templates” and “geometry face-based algorithms” (Wevers, p.90). Along with beneficial claims, these practices prompt two problematic assumptions. First, being biometric technologies are objective and invulnerable, and second, that the human body will not change over time. Studies have shown that machine learning algorithms are capable of discriminating subjects based on class and gender.

 

Puglisese (2005) also pointed out that systems tend to show accuracy errors when identifying darker-skinned individuals due to it being “calibrated to white”

(Wilson, 2007, p.208).

 

Thus, this faces the same issue as biased algorithms on online platforms (Abbate, 2017), in which the algorithmic systems designed are significantly influenced by individual biases shaped by political, economic, and social conditions (Wevers, 2018). As for the second assumption, it is possible for the body to change due to age, illness, injuries, and plastic surgeries. Hence, identification errors and inaccuracies can increase and impact individuals’ access to services critical to their survival.

Biometric identification data, Image: Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license, Flickr, Some rights reserved

 

In addition, there are concerns that biometric systems can reinforce inequality and prejudice when social characteristics are also considered. For instance, Ursula Rao’s study (2013) of Aadhaar implementation in homeless areas and enabling access to banking found that bank managers focused on social status, trust, and desirability of applicants more than their biometric identity. This demonstrated how access to services relied upon the need for credible individuals or institutions to vouch for applicants instead of their biometric identity which should act sufficiently as evidence.

Another reason against biometrics and likely the most important one is that there are no strongly effective legislations in place to adequately protect individuals from experiencing potential misuse and manipulation of their biometric identity in Australia.

 

Edward Santow had pointed this out with concern on how one-to-many facial recognition technology is “much prone to errors”, and such occurrence in a law enforcement context can cause violations of basic human rights.

 

Thus, it is crucial that the Australian government prioritises on establishing effective regulations first, instead of rapidly increasing biometric installations.

 

Save the Internet rally at the White House, Image: Susan Melkisethian, Flickr, Some rights reserved

 

How will it affect you?

Based on the government’s constant support for biometric technologies, it suggests the possibility of Australia following the same steps of Aadhaar in broadening the application of biometric systems to potentially daily mundane activities such as grocery shopping and internet browsing. This situation would certainly implicate internet users by restricting internet freedom with greater surveillance, accountability, and bureaucratic bias.

For instance, Kelty (2014) highlighted how positive liberty and negative liberty depends on those who design it into technologies. In this case, biometric systems being designed to authenticate and record individual tracks are essentially external restraints on users’ freedom online. Certain online services could also be denied access where there are errors and biases, so there are significant inaccuracy and surveillance concerns for users.

 

Be wary of biometric surveillance technologies in the name of “security”.

Furthermore, private corporations such as banks and retailers are able to collect behavioural biometric data from the use of their online applications. While it is claimed to verify user identity for security purposes, it is an issue when companies do not disclose when and how user data is being collected and used. Henceforth, the lack of transparency and governing laws, and surveillance and bureaucratic bias make significant implications for internet users.

 

Final decision

In sum, there could be several advantages of implementing biometric identification systems, but to extend its usage on a broad scale like Aadhaar in India would significantly implicate privacy and freedom rights. Creating new laws to govern these systems may sound like an effective solution, but it would be complex to ensure that every individual is uniquely catered and protected according to their living circumstances, conditions, and basic human rights.

Moreover, as statistically reported on attitudes for using biometric technologies, it would be highly pervasive to also rely on them for minor activities such as registering for a social media account or applying for a mobile phone. Ultimately, it is useful to apply for major security related measures like border and crime matters, but highly inappropriate for everyday activities particularly when it heavily compromises privacy and is not democratically supported.

 

References:

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About Minna Trinh 1 Article
A Digital Cultures Student 👩‍🎓 Interested in social media, digital marketing, and technology innovations.

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