Facial recognition: a case of Australian exceptionalism?

Given the steady profusion of biometrics and FRT around the world, why should we pay particular attention to Australia – a large landmass with relatively small population on the periphery of the Southern Hemisphere? In one sense, Australia is an ideal showcase for the everyday implementation of this technology across society. To date, discussions over the mainstream use of facial recognition have tended to focus on obviously problematic cases – such as how this technology is embroiled in the racial politics of US policing, or Chinese authorities’ use of the technology to monitor minority Uighur groups. In contrast, facial recognition has entered the Australian national consciousness in far less controversial forms – the introduction of ‘SmartGates‘ in the country’s major airports, the mandated introduction of FRT into South Australian pubs and hotels to deter underage gambling. In this sense, Australia can offer insights into what might be considered to be mundane, everyday implementations of facial recognition that might otherwise be overlooked.

Yet, Australia should not be seen as a technological backwater. This is a country that likes to see itself as ‘punching about its weight’ when it comes to science and innovation. Australians will proudly lay claim to have ‘invented’ technologies from the Blackbox flight recorder to Wi-Fi. This chimes with what is sometimes seen as a national disposition to supporting local scientific achievements and orientation. As Sheppard and Gray (2017) observe, “Australians are proud of the country’s scientific achievements … only matched by Australians’ pride in our national sporting achievements. Science seems integral to our national identity”. Australian policymakers and regulators also like to present themselves as playing a leading role in the area of technology and innovation. For example, at the beginning of our project the Australian government made great play of momentarily standing-up to the reuse of local news media by corporations such as Facebook and Google. As the prime minister put it at the time, Australia saw itself as challenging “the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them … They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it”.

So, there is a sense that Australia is steadily ‘getting on with the job’ of implementing facial recognition in a typically robust manner. This idea of national exceptionalism is one that we shall explore throughout our project. To what extent is Australian roll-out of FRT distinct to other nations? To what extent are notions of national identity and nationhood implicit in the forms of facial recognition that are being enthusiastically supported in Australia, and those that are deemed as not appropriate? These issues are certainly surfacing in our ongoing interviews and conversations with key actors across Australia’s IT industry, research, civil society and policy communities. Take this excerpt from our conversations with one of the leading figures in biometrics and FRT within the federal Australian government:

So look, I’m declaring my bias here, but Australia was the first country to really coordinate an approach … So, what that meant is that when Australia was interested in biometrics way back in the day, and face was the number one [area] of interest is that a number of agencies came together because they also thought, “Maybe we might be interested in that in the future, and maybe we might want to understand a little bit more about that.

So, what that meant was that very early on you had people from around Government aware that this technology was coming up, that there would be humans required in the loop, and that in order to do this properly, we’d have to come together and try and come up with some processes and things. Other countries didn’t do that. They kind of worked very much in isolation. They also didn’t think too much about legislation. They kind of looked at legislation and said, “Well, there’s nothing that says we can’t do it, so we’re going to do it

Australia kind of did things differently. Australia looked at, “Was the legislation there? No, it’s not,” or, “Yes, it is but we’ve got to tweak it a bit,” and we took that time to tweak it. And there are quite larger [FRT] programs in Government at the moment that are on hold, because the legislation is on hold. And I think that is absolutely the right thing to be doing, and that’s the reason why we don’t have massive calls for banning face recognition, at the moment touch wood, in Australia, because we have been trying to do things the right way.

So, over the last ten years or so, or 15 years that I’ve been involved in biometrics, the FBI ring me and ask questions. The Home Office in the UK will ring DFAT and ask questions. Because Australia’s seen as the country that’s got it’s shit together with regards to biometrics, because we did come together earlier”.


This notion of a distinctly Australian approach to FRT has also surfaced in our conversations with IT and biometrics industry. For example, one representative of a large multinational firm expressed surprise at how well-funded Australia’s major sports stadia were, and noted the sports sector’s particular interest in being seen to adopt cutting-edge technology. As a result, one of first Australian priorities for their company had been to pitch for contracts to fit facial recognition into high-profile locations such as the SCG and MCG. Similarly, the legislated adoption of FRTs into small gaming rooms and ‘pokies’ in pubs was also seen as an especially Australian predilection. In contrast, this company’s experience in installing FRTs into US schools and universities to prevent campus shootings was of little relevance to the Australian market. The forms of facial recognition seen as necessary for Wollongong are not necessarily the same as those in Wichita.

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