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Carol Bennett: How helpful is facial recognition in pubs and clubs in tackling problem gambling?

Carol Bennett, AGR CEO

19 Aug 2022

It should be alarming to people that when they next go into their local pub or club they could have their faces scanned and their data stored.

There is a growing industry push across the nation to use new facial recognition technology.

And the ACT has now found itself at the forefront of this push with the announcement that ClubsACT is undertaking a trial. They say the system is already in place - all they need now is the green light from the ACT government. Their plan is to allow problem gamblers to opt-in to have their faces scanned by the software so venues can more effectively exclude them from gambling venues. Currently gambling venues have a system where people - and in some cases family members - can seek to have a person excluded from a venue. The venues then manually manage the identification of these people.

The new technology will alert staff to patrons who have registered themselves on a database if they enter the poker machine or gambling area of a venue. Of course this trial is not the only push by the industry to introduce such technology. There are reports that up to 15 venues in South Australia are already using the technology. South Australia has implemented a framework for the use of facial recognition in hotels, clubs and the casino, while Crown Casino Melbourne has facial recognition technology to detect possible breaches by self-excluded individuals. And Liquor and Gaming NSW has just highlighted the introduction of facial recognition technology as part of its regulatory priorities for the second half of 2022. It all may sound quite harmless. But this is an industry that cannot be trusted. For a start, across Australia and in the ACT, we have seen the most appalling evidence of gambling venues not taking self-exclusion seriously and only acting after several cases of people committing suicide due to gambling debts. The introduction of such technology also opens up a Pandora's box of problems.

For a start there is a lack of transparency about how the data and IDs that are collected will be used. Unless there are adequate safe guards the data could actually be used to connect a person's gambling habits with their online gambling activity to create tailored marketing campaigns. Yes, it could actually provide opportunities for the industry to better target gambling products to people who are already vulnerable. This is an industry that has operates a business model partly based on exploiting vulnerable people. Why would we trust them not to use this technology to make more money? Will clubs and pubs clearly declare the use of this technology if it gets rolled out? Will they seek the permission of all participants? Will they provide all patrons with details about the use of facial recognition and how the information will be used? There are also concerns that due to the error rate of facial recognition - especially the proven failure of the technology to correctly identify people of colour, women and people with a disability - that people will be mistakenly identified and wrongly banned from venues or even arbitrarily detained and arrested. It is why the Alliance for Gambling Reform and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education have joined forces to write to the liquor and gaming regulators in every state and territory seeking an immediate moratorium on the use of facial recognition in pubs and clubs.

Our organisations want an explanation on the extent of the use of facial recognition in alcohol and gambling venues together with an immediate halt on its use until current investigations by the Australian Information Commissioner and the Human Rights Commission have concluded. At the very least, we believe we need some controls over the use of the technology even if that means introducing new legislation. The gambling industry makes most of its money from people addicted to using its products. They have a long track record of putting their profits ahead of individual and community wellbeing. There is little chance that they can be trusted to self-regulate this technology. Unless it is independently regulated it will almost certainly lead to more gambling harm. The ACT trial may sound harmless even potentially offering some benefits, but it could also help usher in this technology across the country and there is little evidence that there are adequate protections or controls in place. Maybe we all need to learn to smile whenever we go to our local for a drink and a flutter, there is an increasing probability that we are being watched, tracked and monitored by the gambling industry.

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