Facial Recognition Technology: Coming to a Pokie Room Near You

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Poker room

The Australian Hotels Association NSW and ClubsNSW have announced the development of ‘state of the art’ facial recognition technology which they intend to install in the gambling areas of all pubs and clubs across the state. 

The justification for the move is to prevent people with self-imposed gambling bans from playing poker machines, but given the appalling governmental track record on the use of information data, there are concerns the information may be used as yet another may to track, monitor and control ordinary citizens.

And more than that, there are concerns the move is a way for the associations to, for all intents and purposes, work in cahoots with government to stave off more restrictive proposals; such as imposing limits on the maximum spin (there have been proposals to limit this to $1) and spending limits for individuals.

Bolstering the surveillance state

The proposal has received a significant amount of criticism – being seen by many as yet another means of bolstering the surveillance state under the guise of protecting vulnerable citizens. 

On its face, the scheme involves faces being cross-checked with images of those who have signed up for a self-exclusion system, but there is little information available about who will have access to the images, how they will be stored, how long they will be kept and what other information will be sent along with it.

Data is not secure

The most recent cyber attacks resulting in massive data leaks should mean that the idea of such a system will send shivers up the spines of millions Australians. 

Fortunately, in the past three data breaches involving Optus, My Deal and Medibank images were not involved, but they have certainly highlighted how vulnerable organisations are to cyber attack, and how woefully inadequate our current data protection laws are when it comes to safeguarding consumers. 

The plan for  mass rollout of facial recognition software has also been described by some as a ‘lazy’ move by The Australian Hotels Association NSW and ClubsNSW in order to avoid other measures which could be implemented just as effectively, such as having security personnel to check identification of ‘self-excluded gamblers’, or another initiative which has been discussed for some time – mandatory cashless gambling cards which would act as a measure of harm-reduction for people with gambling addictions, as well as a way to stop money laundering. 

Other potential solutions 

Recently, Tasmania announced it would introduce a mandatory gambling card for poker machines by the end of 2024. It would require all players to either pre-set a limit for losses, or accept the default of $100 per day and $5,000 per year.

Because the cards mean that cash isn’t used, there is less opportunity for criminals to attempt money laundering. 

For some time, the NSW Greens have been pushing for reform and improved harm-reduction measures around gambling, including a curfew on gambling machines operating between midnight and midday, $1 bet limits per spin on gambling machines and mandatory player-set time and spending limits for machines and online gambling.

According to data from Gamble Aware, a department of the NSW Government, poker machines are the most addictive form of gambling. 

However, the data also suggests that gambling generally, is in steady decline. Statistics from 2019 show  that only 1% of adults are problem gamblers according to the Problem Gambling Severity Index. 

This index defines ‘problem gamblers’ as those ‘having experienced adverse consequences as a result of their gambling and may have lost control of their gambling behaviour.’ 

This doesn’t ignore the fact that gambling is a serious social problem which has much wider consequences than solely on the person who gambles, nor the fact that gamblers who need professional help to curb their additions must have equitable access to appropriate services and resources,  but it does perhaps put the idea of a mass rollout of facial recognition software in pubs and clubs into some perspective. 

Some might say it is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

The problems with facial recognition technology 

Facial recognition software has been in use in Australia for some time, but to date the technology has proven to be far from accurate.  

In 2019, an evaluation report on the Queensland Police Service (QPS) use of facial recognition software during the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which was installed at great expense to taxpayers, found the technology was completely ineffective, with the software misidentifying people in the ‘vast majority’ of cases. 

In a  similar trial of facial recognition software in the United Kingdom in 2016/17, the software made the wrong call in 98% of cases.

Beware of ‘Big Brother’ 

In addition, sanctioning the rollout for these organisations also has the potential to set an alarming precedent – enabling organisations and private businesses to enlist similar software themselves without appropriate legal or regulatory oversight. 

Right now, across Australia, there are currently major concerns about whether current Privacy Laws are adequate given the increasing ways that privacy can be breached via technology and data unlawfully accessed and misused.

However, it’s not just law enactment and enforcement that needs to be considered here. There needs to be a much broader ethical debate about the impact of the implementation of such invasive mass surveillance on our civil liberties. There also needs to be some serious thought and reflection around whether such technology supports the kind of democracy we want to nurture and advance here in Australia. 

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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