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Gambling reform and privacy activists have condemned the introduction of facial recognition technology at pubs and clubs across New South Wales, which they say will only risk the privacy of everyone involved, and distract from more robust reforms. On Wednesday, the Australian Hotels Association NSW and ClubsNSW announced that cameras will be installed in venues across the state from next year to identify gamblers who have registered with the state’s multi-venue self-exclusion scheme. The technology is already being used in 100 venues across the state.
According to the announcement, reported first by ABC News, cameras will capture the biometric data of everyone who walks through a venue’s doors, and crosscheck their face with a database of “problem gamblers” who have signed up to the scheme. In the event of a match, a member of staff is notified so they can “intervene” and refer the person to support services. According to the executives spruiking the roll out, some “85 percent of self-excluded gamblers” support the move, but the survey is nowhere to be found, and various experts globally have long warned against the technology’s use.Among them is Samantha Floreani, a program lead at Digital Rights Watch Australia, who told VICE that facial surveillance tech is “invasive, dangerous”, and that “we should be exceptionally wary” of introducing it as a “quick-fix” harm reduction strategy. “People who opt in to self-exclusion programs deserve meaningful support, rather than having punitive surveillance technology imposed upon them. And those who have not opted into these programs ought to be able to go to the pub without having their faces scanned and their privacy undermined,” Floreani said. “If state governments genuinely care about tackling the harms of gambling, there is a swathe of other measures that could be taken that don’t rely on facial surveillance.”
One measure broadly supported by reform advocates and politicians is the introduction of a mandatory gambling card, which would work in a similar way to the cashless debit card, and require those who want to put money into the pokies to register the card with ID. Those who support it say it could also have an impact on curbing suspected money laundering. NSW Greens MP and gambling harm spokesperson, Cate Faehrmann, said a move towards “invasive and inconsistent” facial recognition tech shows just how “scared” of mandatory gambling cards the industry must be. “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,” Faehrmann said. “Not only is this a huge invasion of privacy, it’s far less accurate than a mandatory card. It’s also another piece of public data at threat of a potential breach.”The Greens instead would like to see the state government introduce the mandatory cashless gambling card introduced state-wide, along with a curfew on gambling machines between midnight and midday, spending limits, an end to gambling loyalty programs, and a ban on poker machine features “designed to be addictive”, like flashing lights and sounds. The sentiment was shared by Tim Costello, who is an advocate for the Alliance of Gambling Reform, who told VICE that the survey cited by the AHA and ClubsNSW was likely a “crock” being leveraged to sustain booming profits in Australia’s gambling capital.
So far this year, NSW’s hotels and clubs have already made $1.9 billion in combined revenue across the state. In practice, that means that gamblers are losing almost $22 million a day on poker machines across the state—or, an average of about $900,000 an hour.Costello suggested that the move is a piecemeal solution that was strategically announced ahead of the release of a final report from the New South Wales Crime Commission’s Inquiry Into Money Laundering in Pubs and Clubs, set to be handed down next month.“They’re terrified of the cashless card, which is the solution. No criminal, who is actually laundering money, will show their identity before going to play the pokies to launder money,” he said. “And we’ve seen how facial recognition technology has been used…you don’t know where that data goes, or who it gets sold onto. And to put it in the hands of ClubsNSW—how do you know they aren’t going to use it to incentivise [more gambling].”Follow John on Twitter.Read more from VICE Australia and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, This Week Online.