Australia’s pubs set to combat gambling with facial recognition tech, experts call it terrifying and absurd

The goal – to help troubled gamblers by introducing facial recognition technology across hundreds of bars in the Australian state of New South Wales – might seem noble. But a wave of experts are surprised and warn of a lack of safeguards.

The joint proposal was recently presented by ClubsNSW, representing more than 1200 member clubs and contributing to the development of industry-specific legislation relating to alcohol, gambling, and taxation, and the Australian Hotels Association.

According to the plan, venues in this Australian state would be outfitted with “state-of-the-art” facial recognition technology.

The scheme would be aimed at identifying and restricting people addicted to the so-called pokies – popular gaming machines – who have signed up for the self-exclusion system but cannot resist the temptation to try their luck.

Everyone in the gaming area of a venue would have their face scanned. The images would then be cross-checked with people who have signed up for the self-exclusion system.

“Close to 100 clubs are already using this technology and the feedback is that it works,” ClubsNSW Chief Executive Josh Landis said in a press release last week.

He claimed that numerous clubs in New South Wales have already installed the technology and assured it would have strong privacy protections in place and that no venue will be able to access the data.

But privacy experts and politicians have been blasting the scheme as invasive and dangerous over the last few days.

A Greens MP in the New South Wales Legislative Council (NSW), Cate Faehrmann, thinks that the plan is not something the venues badly need. According to the politician, alternative measures, such as introducing cashless gambling cards which lock patron losses to $100 per day, would be more effective in helping addictive gamblers.

“Pokies operators are so scared of a mandatory gambling card that they’ve turned to invasive and inconsistent facial recognition technology instead,” Faehrmann said on Twitter.

“The NSW Government has lost its mind if it thinks people want pubs and clubs to have self-managed facial recognition tech. This is as terrifying as it is absurd.”

The announcement by ClubsNSW and the Australian Hotels Association coincided with the introduction of a new bill in the state’s parliament, giving the industry the power “to collect biometric information from persons on the registered club’s premises.”

The liquor and gaming legislation minister Kevin Anderson told the parliament the use of the technology would be regulated by the federal Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

But such regulations are yet to be developed, argues Kate Bower, a consumer data advocate from CHOICE, an Australian consumer advocacy group. Hence, it is safe to say the law doesn’t even have a chance to catch up with businesses that are already moving forward and implementing controversial technology.