The Queensland Police Service (QPS) has failed in its bid to suppress an evaluation report which found that the use of facial recognition software during the 2018 Commonwealth Games was completely ineffective.

The Gold Coast Games was subjected to the most expansive and intrusive public surveillance operation to be used by Australian police.

The evaluation report reveals that no “high-priority targets” could be identified by the software, leading to the use of the technology for general surveillance – completely at odds with assurances by police regarding the basis for the investment and its level of effectiveness.

The revelations has renewed criticism of the dangers of mass surveillance, including its inaccuracy, ineffectiveness and its potential to lead to wrongful arrest.

Justification for Police Powers

The use of facial recognition was said to be required to protect the public during the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, during which around 700,000 visitors from across Australia and overseas were expected to attend

At the time, QPS Deputy Commissioner Gollschewski said “there is no specific threat against the Games or against anything in Queensland, but of course we live in a probable-threat environment.”

This type of language was used to justify the introduction of protective security zones around 23 Games venues and the heavy and light rail networks. This new status gave police increased powers to detain, search and move people on.

It was this same language of potential terrorist attacks that justifies more intrusive surveillance regimes. In Queensland, the mass surveillance technology can only ordinarily be used to identify suspects for crimes that could attract a sentence of at least of three years in prison.

Documented failings

The evaluation report was obtained through a Right to Information (RTI) request. This report showed that none of the 16 high-priority targets requested as part of the operation were able to be identified using the technology.

“Difficulties were experienced in data ingestion into one of the systems with the testing and availability not available until the week Operation Sentinel [the Games security operation] commenced,” the report found, with the legislation not being passed in time.

As a result, the images database was reduced from an anticipated 46 million images to approximately eight million.

The report also found that the facial recognition data was inconsistently applied. While police records were included, images from Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads were left out. The report also found similar issues with millions of national identification images that were not included in the database.

General policing

When the QPS could not get the program off the ground for high-profile suspects, they shifted its use to a general policing tool, which in turn resulted in only five identities out of the 268 requested.

“Given the limited requests from within the Games, opportunity to conduct inquiries for the general policing environment was provided to enable better testing of the processes and capabilities,” the report stated.

This suggests that, although the technology was originally brought in to stop serious offences, it was eventually being used as a general tool of surveillance just to see how well it worked.

Police overreach

Michael Cope from the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties said it was a clear case of “scope creep”, where the justification for new legislation revolves around one type of offender but the practical use of the police power acts against different offenders or innocent civilians.

“This just demonstrates that really the main use of this thing is not going to be to find people who might be potentially coming to cause mayhem and to kill people, but it’s going to be to catch people who are committing ordinary mundane offences,” he said.

Queensland privacy commissioner Philip Green was in agreement, and said that he had concerns about the increasing use of this technology in the future.

“We do need, as a society, to look at impacts of the technology on a wider group of people to make sure that they’re not being disadvantaged unfairly and that the technology use is proportionate and reasonable,” he said. “Countries such as China have been reported for using this sort of technology for jay-walking offences, and even rationing toilet paper in public toilets.”

Attempt to suppress report

When asked about the operation of the system during the Games, QPS initially told ABC that there “were no problems experienced with its use”.

QPS then repeatedly tried to block requests for documents under RTI, until the Office of the Information Commissioner overruled them, saying it was in the public interest for the report to be released.

Queensland Law Society president Bill Potts explained that it was in the public interest to know the nature and extent of mass surveillance methods being used by authorities.

“Why has it taken so long and why did they find it so hard to provide details of something which they had announced would be utilised and was going to be a terrific success?” he remarked, adding, “There needs to be very clear guidelines and very clear expectations set as to the circumstances under which it will be used.”