Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow said face recognition protections were not strong enough and “law enforcement agencies shouldn’t be allowed to use it without proper safeguards in place”.

“At the moment there are not strong and clear enough legal protections in place to prevent the misuse of facial recognition in high stakes areas like policing or law enforcement,” he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald last week.

“We want to see this new form of technology developed in a way that is safe and provides economic opportunities, but we need safeguards that prevent harm to humans.”

Research suggests facial recognition is less accurate when attempting to identify darker-skinned people and Santow said the use of the technology to identify an individual among many subjects was worrying.

This so-called “one-to-many” application of facial recognition technology is distinct from the “one-to-one” systems used for passport control or user authentication in smartphones, which Santow said were low risk.

“One-to-many is much more prone to error and the consequences of error can be exceptionally serious,” Sandow said. “In a law enforcement context, if you wrongly identify someone as a suspect, then you can take all kinds of action against that person that can violate their basic human rights.”

“[Facial recognition for law enforcement] should not be permissible, unless or until there are proper legal protections in place that will prohibit and prevent misuse and harm against humans.”

The Identity-matching Services Bill would allow the government to create facilities for the sharing of facial images between various government agencies and private organisations. The bill has been withdrawn and is being redrafted to meet community concern.

About 61 per cent of Australians agree facial recognition could be a useful tool for public safety but many don’t want it used in public spaces.

Recently, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft have all pulled their facial recognition services out of police hands in the US, on the basis of fears around mass surveillance and racial profiling.

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