The move to scan all faces in all crowds cannot be far away

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with Premiers and Chief Ministers for national security COAG at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday 5 October 2017. Fedpol. Photo: Andrew Meares
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with Premiers and Chief Ministers for national security COAG at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday 5 October 2017. Fedpol. Photo: Andrew Meares

The problem with socialism, Margaret Thatcher observed, is that eventually you run out of other peoples' money.

Ditto for enhancing national security and the individual freedoms surrendered in the process.

This trade-off has always been the "other danger" in Western liberalism's fight against religious violence in this age of mass alarm.

It was blithely dismissed on Thursday as first ministers unanimously approved a counter-terrorism package that "enhances" public safety by increasing surveillance of private citizens and removes longstanding rights for those suspected of terrorist involvement.

The first thing to say is that there are no easy answers. Governments can not do nothing in this environment.

Yes the primary responsibility is to protect the community but it has always come with limits on the state via checks on agency power and civilian protections set out in statutory and common law rights.

Inevitably these become strained when there is a galloping political imperative to do something.

This brings us to the second thing to say, which is that the decision by COAG required no courage at all.

That does not make it wrong per se. But it should prompt concerns.

Like the premiers, Malcolm Turnbull is confident that voters want to feel safe, particularly in crowds, and expect authorities to use all means to ensure it.

Turnbull's refrain that there can be no "set-and-forget" in national security, is a tacit admission that these changes will keep coming. The direction is clear - towards a more informed state and its corollary, a more monitored populace.

Real-time access to state government drivers' licence databases does not involve any new information gathering, Turnbull assures, but merely the removal of outdated jurisdictional barriers to federal use.

Few would argue against fixing that.

But with the emphasis necessarily on prevention regarding terrorism, it would seem crazy not to deploy this fast-improving facial recognition technology more pro-actively in future, particularly by combining it with all the other ways in which we are already tracked.

Thus the move to scan all faces in all crowds once the software is capable, cannot be far away. Data aggregation and cross-referencing are force multipliers when it comes to the surveillance power of such information.

But again, who will argue against improving public safety?

Presumably not premiers who said variously that it would be "unforgivable" if they did not act, that civil rights arguments were a "luxury", and that their reduction is a "sign of the times".

Pretty good pointer to the future also.

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This story The move to scan all faces in all crowds cannot be far away first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.