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Australian government may add social media photos to national biometrics database


Australia’s attorney general’s department has confirmed that the federal government is considering taking photos from social media sites and adding them to its national biometric database as part of the country’s counter-terrorism measures, according to a report by The Guardian.

The move comes a few weeks after the Australian federal government announced it will invest $18.5 million in a new law enforcement facial recognition system called the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability.

Under questioning in Senate estimates, Andrew Rice, assistant secretary of the department said that photos could be taken from social media sites and used in the new biometric database.

“It’s possible that still images out of these kinds of environments could be put into the system,” said Rice. “That would be a choice for the users of the system.”

However, Rice said that agencies using this capability could legally draw on those sources at present.

“Making those choices will be on the basis of their existing legal permissions,” Rice said.

The proposal is for the new system to draw on official photos, including driver’s licence and passport photos, to create a database. Stills taken from CCTV and other sources are of lower quality and therefore more likely to be inaccurate, Rice said.

The new system’s details are still being ironed out with privacy impact assessments expected to be completed in early 2016.

It is also unclear what the minimum offence would have to be in order for agencies to use this new capability.

“This is not something that would be available for broad usage within agencies,” said Rice, adding that the department consulted with all state and territory police agencies, along with federal departments such as immigration and foreign affairs and trade.

Consultations will also occur with privacy organisations, but not with members of the public, Rice said.

Greens senator Scott Ludlam said he was concerned that the system was being handled “behind the scenes” by security agencies and the attorney general’s department. However, Rice assured that the department was “looking at being very transparent about the use of the capability.”

Australian justice minister Michael Keenan said in September the system will operate within the guidelines of the Privacy Act 1988, ensuring that those agencies using the system will need to attain legislative authority to collect and use facial images.

Under the new system, the new powers would not be required to go through the parliament process to be enacted.

“I’m not aware that it requires legislation,” the attorney general, George Brandis, told Senate estimates.

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