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Gambling reform: Facial recognition technology more intrusive and less effective than a mandatory card

In light of the ABC’s Four Corners program revelations, and the ongoing debate about poker machine reform, Wesley Mission has today released a discussion paper on the gambling industry proposal to use facial recognition technology (FRT) in the gaming rooms of pubs and clubs in an attempt to prevent money laundering through poker machines and minimise gambling harm.

The operations of the gambling industry and the extent of its political power has long been of concern to Wesley Mission.

Among other issues, Wesley Mission is alarmed at the proposal to roll out surveillance technology in advance of legislation in NSW and as a pretence for addressing gambling harm and money laundering,

Wesley Mission CEO and gambling reform advocate Rev Stu Cameron says “We are challenging clubs and pubs to work with us and whoever is the next government to bring in real reforms to stop crime and end misery. We believe FRT is a camouflage – it is a technology the venues hope to use to build their marketing database, under cover of a ‘caring for customer’ rhetoric.”

In NSW, legislation protecting privacy and data for customers in retail and gambling venues from surveillance devices is very unclear. In 2022 CHOICE highlighted the use of FRT in Bunnings, Kmart and the Good Guys, all now under investigation by the Australian Information Commissioner. Even if the law is updated to protect patrons, Wesley Mission argues strongly that the use of a mandatory harm prevention cashless card would achieve a better self-exclusion and money laundering deterrent outcome than FRT surveillance.

“Wesley Mission will be seeking legal advice on whether the way FRT is being used in clubs and pubs is legal in NSW. We want people to feel safe and in control when they socialise in pubs and clubs, with their friends, without being worried about crime, the risk of gambling harm, or Big Brother spy cameras in every room,” said Rev Cameron.

“We don’t believe that people want to be watched every time they go to the club or pub. We don’t believe people want data about what food and drink they ordered, who they met, where they went in the club or pub stored somewhere in a database that could be hacked. If you are concerned about surveillance and being spied on, FRT is much more intrusive than a simple card that you control and you set the options on.”

For 25 years, venues have failed to uphold their side of the bargain for people who have been so harmed by gambling that they have self-excluded. Facial recognition technology might assist them in better identifying patrons who are on the register, but the venue still has to send staff to intervene. That will require a significant cultural change. Even if that works perfectly, FRT does not stop people becoming harmed in the first place. It is not a harm prevention tool.

It is even less clear how money-laundering can be stopped by FRT, given venues do not have databases of known criminals. Anecdotally Wesley Mission understands that it is ordinary people not known to the police who are washing the money on behalf of crime gangs. Clubs and pubs will have to spell out how their system will address the concerns of the NSW Crime Commissioner.

Privacy concerns, misidentification, data misuse and lack of independent oversight characterise the use of FRT in Australia to the extent that the Human Rights Commission has called for a moratorium on its use in law enforcement situations, like stopping money-laundering.

Wesley Mission provides practical care and support for more than 130,000 people annually in NSW and across Australia, including help for people experiencing homelessness, local community action groups preventing suicide, and gambling and financial counselling among more than 120 programs.

Rev Stu Cameron is available for interview.

Media contact:
Anne Holt on 0418 628 342 or

GambleAware help line 1800 858 858 | Lifeline 13 11 14

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