Facial recognition proposed for Australians accessing porn

Published on the 30/10/2019 | Written by Heather Wright


Facial scans Aus porn sites

Smile for the camera, please…

In another from the ‘what could possibly go wrong’ file, Australians may have to submit to ‘face verification’ before indulging in online porn under a plan touted by the Department of Home Affairs.

The government organisation has suggested the use of its Face Verification Service, currently under development, which will match a person’s photo against images used on identity documents to help prevent minors from accessing online porn.

In a submission to the Inquiry into Age Verification for Online Wagering and Online Pornography, the Department of Home Affairs says the face verification service complements its Document Verification Service.

Intended to fight crime and identity theft, the services could also be used to provide age verification.

That service, which has been in use by government agencies for a decade and available to private sector since 2014, checks whether personal information on identity documents matches the original record, including verification of the date of birth on Australian passports, driver licences and birth certificates.

While the services were intended to fight crime and identity theft, Home Affairs says they could also be used to provide age verification in areas such as online porn.

“The Face Verification Service complements the Document Verification Service by preventing the use of stolen as well as fake identity information.

“This could assist in age verification, for example by preventing a minor from using their parent’s driver licence to circumvent age verification controls.”

So, while the Face Verification Service isn’t fully operational yet, Home Affairs acknowledges it intends to make the service available to private sector organisations in future.

There is one significant catch to the proposal as it stands, and one the organisation acknowledges, albeit in passing, in its submission: Use of the Face Verification Service is subject to ‘the passage of the Identity-matching Services Bill 2019’ which is currently before parliament.

That bill, which proposes allowing government agencies, banks and telcos to use facial recognition technology, has proven contentious, and was rejected earlier this month. It’s now being redrafted after Liberal and Labor MPs demanded additional safeguards be added to it.

Meanwhile, the Face Verification Service, initially dubbed The Capability, has itself been contentious, with suggestions it, like similar facial recognition deployments internationally would be prone to errors, particularly against ‘people of colour’ and could be subject to scope creep, leading to biometrics being deployed more widely and putting privacy and civil liberties at risk.

It’s an age old (well, as old as the internet, anyway) problem – since the internet began, it’s been a popular breeding ground for porn, but ensuring it can’t be accessed by children isn’t so easy.

Plans in the UK to ban underage access to porn using an age verification requirement in the Digital Economy Act, were abandoned earlier this month after repeated delays. The UK government had proposed the use of age verification technology – though what technology exactly would be up to each individual porn site, with a request for credit card numbers or information from government issued IDs expected to be the favoured choice.

The UK plans sparked privacy concerns, along with questions over the practical and legal issues, including how to legislate international websites.

Home Affairs says its services could only be used to check a person’s identity with their consent and only where permitted by the Privacy Act.

“Whilst they are primarily designed to prevent identity crime, Home Affairs would support the increased use of the Document and Face Verification Services across the Australian economy to strengthen age verification processes.”

The Age Verification inquiry was launched in September, with Andrew Wallace, chair of the Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee, noting a discrepancy between age verification requirements for online gambling and online pornography.

“While customers must verify their age within 14 days to continue using an online wagering account, an age verification process is not required at all for customers to access online pornography,” Wallace says.

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