Australia Proposes Face Scans for Watching Online Pornography

The Australian government has proposed using a facial recognition system it is developing to verify that people who seek to watch pornography online are of legal age.

Current law in Australia does not prohibit minors from viewing pornography. But the federal government is considering proposals that would require people to prove their age before watching the material.

Under the proposal from the Department of Home Affairs, a computer user’s face would be matched to images from official identity documents. It does not say how the user would submit a facial image at the beginning of each online session.

The proposal drew immediate objections as a potential infringement of Australians’ privacy. “I think people should be very concerned about any government department that’s seeking to store this kind of information,” said Senator Rex Patrick, a centrist lawmaker from the state of South Australia.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to questions about the proposal, and the attorney general’s office, when asked to comment on the legal ramifications of the system, directed all questions to Home Affairs.

The proposal comes as a growing number of American cities are debating the use of facial recognition systems in surveillance by police departments, with San Francisco becoming the first major American city this year to ban the technology.

Proponents of the systems say they are an effective public safety tool that should be regulated but not prohibited. Last month, a British court ruled that police use of the systems does not violate privacy and human rights.

At this point, the Australian proposal is merely notional. Parliament has yet to approve a central identity database that the Department of Home Affairs wants to use in a national face-matching system. The system could be used to identify criminal suspects whose images are captured on surveillance cameras.

But it is an indication of the ambitions that the department — which oversees all of Australia’s intelligence and national security agencies — harbors for facial recognition technology as it has moved to expand its surveillance powers in the two years since the agency was created.

The department made its proposal in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into proposals for online age verification for pornography and gambling.

The effort echoes a move by Britain — which was ultimately dropped — to begin requiring commercial providers of online pornography to verify that their users are 18 or over. The initiative spurred widespread privacy complaints, though the government cited technical gaps that allowed users to bypass verification methods and concerns over cyberattacks in shelving the plan.

Under the British initiative, users would have been required to prove their age to third-party verification services using traditional IDs or verified cards purchased from retailers. In Australia, the Department of Home Affairs has offered a different solution, saying it can provide a “suite of identity matching services.”

Its face verification service, the department wrote, could help “by preventing a minor from using their parent’s driver’s license to circumvent age verification controls.”

Last week, a joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security rejected a bill proposing the central identity database, which would allow the department to collect, verify and share identity information across federal and state governments.

The committee asked for the bill to be redrafted because it “does not adequately incorporate enough detail,” its chairman, Andrew Hastie, said. A committee member, Mark Dreyfus, said there were “almost no limitations or safeguards at all” in the proposed law.

The facial verification system will become operational if the bill is passed. The Department of Home Affairs has said that it intends the system to be available not only to government agencies, but also to the private sector. Organizations in the private sector, though, would be able to use the technology only with a person’s consent.

This is not the first time the department has proposed a use for facial recognition systems. Last year, it pushed facial verification as a way to crack down on online identity fraud. It also rejected suggestions that warrants would be necessary for access to the country’s facial recognition database.

In recent years, Australian governments on both sides of the aisle have passed dozens of national security laws that have increased law enforcement powers and, critics say, encroached on the rights of citizens.

Two years ago, the government passed a metadata retention law that allows it to collect and store for two years information on phone calls and text messages, including the identity of participants and the duration of the communication.

And late last year it passed a bill that would require technology companies to provide law enforcement and security agencies with access to encrypted communications.

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