The Department of Home Affairs proposes using face scanning tech to verify Aussie porn users are over 18

(Photo: Getty Images)
  • The Department of Home Affairs has proposed its facial recognition system ‘The Capability’ could be used for age verification on porn and gambling sites.
  • But it acknowledges the system is not fully functional, and won’t be until Parliament passes the relevant legislation.
  • Last month, the UK axed a plan to block porn sites which did not implement effective age verification systems.

The Department of Home Affairs has made a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into age verification for online pornography and gambling, suggesting that its national facial and document verification services could be used to enforce age checks.

In other words, the government’s national security ministry supports the use of facial recognition to verify Australian internet users are old enough to watch porn.

In its submission, the department says its Document Verification Service and Face Verification Service, though broadly intended as systems for fighting crime and identity theft, could also be used to police age verification controls such as those used on porn and online gambling sites.

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

“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.”

There’s one significant catch for the department’s proposal: the Face Verification Service isn’t actually fully operational yet. It won’t be until Parliament passes the Identity-matching Services Bill 2019, which was just rejected by the bipartisan joint intelligence and security committee due to its lack of privacy safeguards. The committee recommended the bill be entirely redrafted.

On the other hand, the Document Verification Service, which allows businesses and government agencies to verify an individual’s identity documents with the relevant issuers, is operational.

The government is investigating whether current age verification is sufficient.

Announced last month, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs’s inquiry intends to determine whether current age verification systems on porn and gambling sites are sufficient. In the press release announcing the inquiry last month, the committee’s chair Andrew Wallace specifically expressed concern there is a discrepancy between the requirements for porn as compared to gambling.

“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 said.

“This is concerning, as research shows that accessing pornography negatively influences young peoples’ attitudes to sex, sexuality and relationships.”

Lest they be accused of being overly puritanical, the committee stressed in its press release it does not intend to target the “legitimate” use of online porn and gambling.

The committee asserts 44 per cent of children between 9 and 16 years old report they have encountered sexual images online.

The national facial recognition system has been extremely controversial.

With the ominous nickname ‘The Capability’, the national facial recognition database has faced scrutiny at every turn.

The National Facial Biometrics Matching Capability is intended to utilise photographic documents like passports and drivers licences to create a national biometric database. This data could then be matched with pictures captured on CCTV to rapidly identify criminals and identity thieves. Unlike other contentious government data collection programs like My Health Record, you can’t opt out.

Last month, it was announced the drivers licence photos of every Victorian had been uploaded to the database, on the proviso that access would be limited to select, state-based government agencies. The Victorian government had previously flagged it opposed implementation of ‘The Capability’ in its current form.

The Department of Home Affairs’ submission on age verification suggests it is willing to extend the purview of ‘The Capability’ beyond a narrow definition of identity fraud.

The UK tried enhanced age verification for online porn – and ditched it earlier this month.

One of the reference points for the parliamentary inquiry into age verification is the UK’s proposed porn block system, which would have forced operators of porn sites to implement systems verifying their users are over 18, or face being entirely blocked in the country.

The proposed legislation left it open to site operators as to how the verification would actually be implemented, with facial biometrics being touted as one possible outcome. Another widely derided proposal suggested the introduction of “porn passes” – physical vouchers which could be purchased from shops after showing ID.

But the ban was scrapped earlier in October – after the Australian inquiry was announced, explicitly referencing the UK experiment. That might knock the wind out of the sails to some degree.

But the point is this: the Department of Home Affairs is ready and willing to offer ‘The Capability’ in service of stopping kids from watching porn.

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