An Axis 360-degree surveillance camera supporting the security team at Optus Stadium.

CITY of Perth’s face recognition solution, which is used to support cameras around Optus Stadium, has caused a stir among privacy professionals, who say it was rolled out without public consultation and worry it could be the beginning of a surveillance state.

Face recognition is commonly used in and around large venues to make identification easier – the same technology is used at the SCG and dozens of stadiums around the world. In Perth, face recognition software supports 30 cameras around Optus Stadium as part of a 12-month trial by City of Perth, which is interested in operational benefits. The results of the trial will be publicly available. The cameras are monitored at City of Perth’s surveillance centre by the council’s community safety officers in close partnership with WA Police.

A report by ABC floated the notion the technology could be used across all Perth’s 480 public safety cameras and raised the spectre of the imposition of a surveillance state, but the reality is more circumspect. Use of footage from City of Perth’s CCTV solution is subject to stringent protocols. Only police are allowed to access the footage and they must follow due process as part of active investigations into crime. Video footage is deleted after 31 days.

Worries in the community about face recognition technology are building with recent bans on the technology by the City of San Francisco and calls from both sides of U.S. Congress for far-reaching regulation.

“We need to have a robust discussion with the community about … the types of cities we want to live in and the technology we use in them,” Monique Mann from Australian Privacy Foundation told ABC. “There is what is termed the ‘chilling effect of surveillance’,” she said.

“People may not go about their regular business as they would because they’re conscious of being constantly watched and tracked through physical places.”

Meanwhile, University of WA law school Associate Professor Julia Powles told ABC “we needed to seriously think about and debate what kind of cities we were creating if our public spaces could be monitored this way…what a limited vision of urban life to spy on everyone. It’s ludicrous,” she said.

Monash University’s Professor of criminal jurisprudence, Liz Campbell, said (quite correctly, in SEN‘s opinion) that while the technology had benefits, including monitoring big crowds for potential terrorist threats, it was still new and had accuracy problems.

In response, City of Perth acting director of economic development and activation, Daniel High, told ABC the technology would only be activated at the request of law enforcement authorities, such as the Australian Federal Police or WA Police.

High said only the authority’s community safety team and law enforcement would have access to video footage, which would be deleted after 31 days and pointed out that the technology could be a powerful law enforcement tool, especially for monitoring of big events at Perth Stadium.

“We feel this will enable us to respond quicker to community safety concerns and also enable us to react to situations, such as missing children…in a quicker, more efficient way,” High said. “There are already signs throughout the precinct highlighting that people are in a CCTV area and through the publicity that the trial has generated, people will be aware that we have that capacity.”

Fears about the system are certainly unfounded. Given the extensive use of Axis cameras around Optus Stadium, SEN speculates the face recognition system being trialled at Optus Stadium is probably a module of Genetec Security Center, the same system successfully deployed at the Sydney Cricket Ground and its approaches to monitor unruly crowd behaviour. Montreal-based Genetec is a privately-owned company with a long history in the electronic security industry. Its business model is bolted firmly to cyber security and ethical use of clever technology.

Meanwhile, City of Perth’s smart city solution uses an entirely different video management system – given the prevalence of Bosch cameras on the approaches, it’s likely to be from Windhagen-based, Geutebruck.