1984 wasn’t meant as an instruction manual

Just because Australia is close to China, doesn’t mean we should emulate the place….

No, really.

New South Wales transport minister Andrew Constance has revealed plans to roll out facial recognition technology across the transport network as an alternative to Opal cards.

“In the transport space we’ll use facial recognition technology to scan customers who’ve ‘opted in’ and linked their Opal account,” Constance said in a speech at the Sydney Institute on Tuesday night.

“No more personal freedom gate barriers. Just a smooth journey,” he said.

Andrew Constance? Where have we heard that name before?

Oh yeah, the chap who instigated an Uber “levy” to bail out speculative taxi “plate” purchasers. In case you’re wondering, “levy” is the name Australian governments use for a tax when they don’t have the courage of their convictions to say “tax”.

The irony is he is from the political party most associated with the economic right, rather than socialism. The party is the Liberal Party and was probably named with the English “classical liberal” definition in mind. Political dogma has changed a lot since, clearly.

That “levy” is probably all an outside observer needs to know to understand the Australian voters’ regular insipid choice between socialism and corporatism.

So, to Constance’s latest big idea; biometric ticket authorisation. In his own words:

“This will read someone’s face, retina, breath, gait or voice to enable next level authorisation and access. Think truly contactless payments – entry to buildings, onto planes, at banks and hotels.”

Call me an old scaredy cat and a cynic but this seems to have all the upside for people who might have bad intentions and a considerable risk of significant downside for everyone else.

What’s the corollary to “entry to buildings, onto planes, at banks and hotels“? No entry.

Currently, entry to those locations and services are managed by the local entity. Constance is hinting at a centrally-managed power providing the yes/no decision based on whether or not your face is in the database of acceptable people.

Who gets the job of running and updating that database? I’d like to offer an early application for this God-like position of power.

And there’s this:

The capability could also be used to detect if someone on a train or bus was ill, Constance claimed.

Well, excuse me if that doesn’t exactly give me a cosy warm feeling like a freshly soiled wetsuit.

It may be cold comfort to predict that, based on a previous history of glacial-speed implementation and incompetence, the New South Wales’ transport network is highly unlikely to be the first wide-scale implementation of facial recognition to have its limitations and scope tested in the law courts and court of public opinion.

The exisiting “Opal” card electronic ticketing system is the same as Hong Kong’s Octopus (launched 1997) and London’s Oyster (launched 2003). Following various delays due to political lethargy and systemic organisational corruption and incompetence in the Transport department, Opal was finally launched in 2012.

Presumably, the NSW government wanted to be absolutely certain there were no teething problems to be ironed out with the fifteen year old Hong Kong version before hastily rushing to follow.

In addition to the fifteen year delay to get around to the project, the State Government rolled out 3.7 million cards and the required retail infrastructure to sell and top up the stored credit when the technology already supported use of contactless debit cards. i.e. that thing 99.9% of people already had in their wallets.

Bill’s Opinion

Anyone who buys Andrew Constance’s claim that implementing biometric recognition for public transport ticketing would be a universal good hasn’t been paying attention to the trend of recent years.

Because a bunch of insane Saudis hijacked planes in the USA on September 11th, 2001, your government has usurped huge powers of surveillance, implemented CCTV camera networks throughout most public spaces, eavesdrops on electronic communications, restricted internet access, further regulated banking and the ability to transfer money, changed centuries old laws about detention without trial and due process, and all in the name of “temporary measures” to make us safer.

If you hope and believe these powers will one day be walked back and revoked because the threat of terrorism has been defeated, I’ve got a harbour bridge I’d like to sell you.

Such a throwaway line by Andrew Constance should scare the crap out of anyone who has read the history of what happens when the power to interfere in the day to day lives of others is concentrated centrally.

The counter argument always made to this is, “no, no, when we centralise the power we will use it for the benefit of everyone“. Well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 100 million times, shame on me.

Imagine an average day in the life of a citizen of New South Wales a century ago. How many interactions would they have had with an organ of government? Perhaps they would have sent their child to a state school in the morning, posted a letter in the state run postal service, perhaps said hello to the policeman on the high street.

Now think about the answer to the same question for 2019.

10 Replies to “1984 wasn’t meant as an instruction manual”

  1. Coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.

    A brave Chinese journalist, whom we will call Li, was in Kashgar undercover earlier this year when he spotted a strange sight, a square “QR” bar code on the front door of a house. Other homes on the street were marked in the same way. Li watched nervously as a Chinese police patrol used a device to scan one of them.

    Every hundred yards or so along the street, he spotted a gantry with a large, sophisticated surveillance camera. A police checkpoint came into view, one of thousands in the city. Men and women were queueing to have their ID cards and their faces scanned. They handed their phones to police officers, who plugged them into a machine that read the contents.


    1. Thanks. Not at all surprising.

      I have a draft blog post I intend to finish when I sober up after the cricket on the subject of Communism and whether it is now more feasible with technology?

    2. And so they should. That’s not all they are doing in Xinjiang and it is all justified. These people are lucky the Chinese government is so tolerant. The government’s actions are not as a result of their supposed communist beliefs but are the only sensible response to the actions of the Uyghur population. The government of the PRC has a responsibility to protect the majority of it’s population from harm and the more responsibly they act, the more the Western media criticizes them.

      1. That’s a weak attempt at trolling, try harder.

        As for “….the more the Western media criticizes them”, I’m not seeing the evidence they are willing to criticise them much at all. Are you? Do post links, if so.

  2. J,ust because Australia is close to China, doesn’t mean we should emulate the place….

    Australia is not as close as some.

    9,000km = Australian capital city to Chinese capital city
    8,200km = London to Beijing

    1. Yes, Mercator vs great circle route is always deceptive.

      A flight from Australia to China is two thirds the duration of one from London though.

      1. Got it on the exaggerated map scale but not sure if you are right on the average flight time being shorter from Oz though. Certainly not for say Sydney or London to Beijing.

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