Criminal Law News & Current Affairs

By Peter Woodhouse


Big Brother is watching… or at least ACT Policing are.

Earlier this week the ACT Government and Chief Police Officer were collectively beating their drums about improvements to the ACT Closed Circuit Television (“CCTV”) network.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been pumped in to replacing older-style cameras with the latest and greatest high-definition technology.

The Government, almost braggingly, assures Canberrans that facial recognition is off the agenda – at least as long as it remains prohibited by privacy laws.  Despite acknowledging the gross infringement on civil liberties associated with facial recognition, the new and improved technology offers such advancements as “appearance searches” and “video pattern technology” which perform similar roles to facial recognition, but apparently without the privacy implications.

Like me, you might ask yourself: “what’s the real difference?”  And the answer is there is no real difference.  This technology allows an operator to identify a person of interest and track them automatically across the network; not by using facial recognition, but by tracking clothing type and colour, hair colour and (unfortunately) skin colour.  The same technology can also be used to track vehicles, by vehicle colour and type, as well as by registration number.  The technology is self-learning and can track people and vehicles from one camera to the next, throughout the network.  In essence, it allows the authorities to follow a target, for whatever reason, across the city.

ACT Chief Police Officer chirped that the coppers “get great value out of this CCTV network”.  Well of course they do.  It affords a police officer and some government employees the opportunity to watch and follow anybody across the Canberra CBD, whether they’re a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’.  The system is also ripe for abuse.  The Government hard drives hold 30 days of vision which is easily searchable.  This technology is ripe for abuse.  There are many examples in this jurisdiction and others of police misusing CCTV technology (both with and without facial recognition) in pursuit of some private interest.  Who is going to police the police and ensure this technology is being used lawfully and ethically?

The rollout of similar technology in the UK has spawned non-profit groups like “Big Brother Watch” which exposes and challenges threats to privacy, freedoms and civil liberties caused by the use of such technology. That group, whilst predominantly focused on ensuring citizens are informed of their rights, has also instigated legal proceedings when the technology is misused and abused.  Perhaps we need a similar body in the Territory.

For some reason it seems Australian society is ambivalent about the ever-growing encroachment on civil liberties, blindly trusting authorities as ‘looking out for us’ – so much is obvious to me as a criminal defence lawyer given the number of people who interview with the police (don’t do an interview, by the way – ever).  The fact remains this technology is as monumental an infringement on our rights and liberties as the use of facial recognition.  To claim otherwise is just more smoke’n’mirrors from the powers that be.  The sad reality is we a blindly marching towards a surveillance state, dressed up as crime prevention or detection and at the irrecoverable expense of our privacy.