Perth City council is pressing ahead with a trial of facial recognition technology to be installed in cameras across East Perth, despite concerns from privacy experts and local residents.
The network of 30 cameras is set to go live within weeks, amid complaints there has been no proper local consultation since the plans were revealed last year.
The cameras are equipped with software that uses deep-learning AI to recognise faces, count passing people and vehicles and track movement. The council said the system was going through final tests, and was expected to be activated within a few weeks.
The secretary of the East Perth Community Safety Group, Lyn Schwan, said she was not aware of any community consultation about the trial.
“The facial recognition aspect of the new camera network was news to me,” she said. “I feel that the community should have been better informed. Whether residents want to take it further or not is up to them, but we should have been told.”
The chairman of Digital Rights Watch, Tim Norton, questioned whether such systems were an effective tool to tackle crime.
“There is no empirical evidence that supports the assertion that blanket surveillance is effective at preventing serious crime and terrorism either domestically or internationally,” Norton said.
“Australians expect to be able to live their lives without being watched, monitored and tracked, but this is becoming increasingly difficult as more cities expand surveillance operations and place cameras in public spaces.”
In the initial trial, only three of the 30 cameras can use the facial recognition software simultaneously but the capability can move between cameras – which means passersby cannot tell whether facial recognition is being used in the cameras filming them or not.
The council was suspended in March 2018 and is now being run by three state government-appointed commissioners.
The deputy chair commissioner, Gaye McMath, said suggestions the community had not been adequately consulted were unfounded.
“The City of Perth has been open and transparent regarding the trial of facial recognition in East Perth,” she said. “Facial recognition will only be activated upon request from a lawful authority such as WA police, who need to provide the city with an image or series of images of a person of interest.
“There are many additional capabilities of the camera analytics [beyond facial recognition] including providing data around pedestrian numbers, vehicle types and counts, cyclist numbers which will assist planning and urban decision-making such as the placement of infrastructure or enhancing the development of transport solutions.”
The council confirmed that authorities would not be required to provide any kind of warrant when asking for the facial recognition capabilities to be switched on, only to provide an image or series of images of a person of interest.
The trial will run for 12 months and success will be measured by how many times a lawful authority requested the use of the facial recognition capability and how many times a person of interest (which may include missing persons or lost children, as well as criminal suspects) is located. If successful, the council may consider expanding it.
The council did not respond directly to questions about how the data would be stored or who would have access to it, saying only the data would be deleted every 30 days.
One resident, Lauren Mac, said no one had been asked for consent for their data to be collected.
“Very few people in the community are aware of this trial, and the majority are in disbelief when I tell them,” Mac said. “We haven’t been asked for consent.
“This is our own biometric data, as unique as our DNA, and there has been no consultation or permission obtained from Perth’s constituents to capture this data or track us as we walk down the street.”
“There is no opt-out function, and no choice for participation by minors. My children are supposed to grow up under these circumstances. I haven’t consented to this, and neither have they.”
Liz Campbell, a professor of jurisprudence at Monash University, told the ABC it was best practice to inform people their images were being collected via the technology.
“There are two elements to the surveillance which people won’t necessarily have consented to,” she said. “People won’t know they’re on a watch list or know that an image has been taken from their Facebook page for comparison, and they may not know their picture has been taken through the live facial recognition cameras.”
Digital Rights Watch has written to 367 city and town councils across the country, calling on them to sign up to Cities for Digital Rights, a global coalition of city councils which have pledged that “privacy, freedom of expression and democracy must be incorporated by design into digital platforms starting with locally-controlled digital infrastructures and services”.
Sydney is the only Australian city to have signed up.