Australia Wants to Streamline Its Border Control Using Biometrics

The country envisions a system that would eliminate the need for paper passports or identity cards for a number of the 35 million who visit each year

(Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection)
smithsonian.com

Australia wants to get hands-off with international arrivals, stepping up a game that already allows pre-screened passengers to scan in their passports without involvement by a border control agent.

In a call for private bids by the country’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection this past December, Australia announced its intent to augment its current “Seamless Traveler” program to eliminate the need for paper passports or identity cards for a large chunk of the 35 million annual travelers that visit the country. The vision is that by 2020, up to 90 percent of international arrivals will enter the country via a paperless biometric recognition system.

Though the exact form of that system will depend on which companies submit bids, the mix might include iris scanning, facial recognition, and the traditional standby, the fingerprint. Other options could even include ear shape, voice recognition, gait pattern analysis, or mapping the network of veins in the traveler’s hands and arms.

Australia would be the first country to implement touchless biometric scanning at all of its international entry points. The United Arab Emirates and Singapore have already started to implement a similar strategy at select airports. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport tested a touchless fingerprint scanner in 2015.

“Automated processing technology provides a simpler process for travelers while maintaining the security of our borders,” wrote an immigration control spokeswoman in a statement to Smithsonian.com. “It enables the Australian Border Forces to meet the challenges of increasing traveler numbers.”

The agency says the goal is to simplify technology in order to improve processing times, sweeten the “traveler experience” and bolster border security. But under the current program, which has used so-called SmartGates as part of its Seamless Traveler program since 2007, many people arriving in-country can already scan their passports without the involvement of a border agent. And depending on the country of origin, passports contain a number of biometric data already, including fingerprint information, and facial scan and iris data.

The program already meets or exceeds the 90 percent hands-free threshold in airports, including Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide and Canberra; the remainder of travelers who cannot self-process are made up of groups like families with young children, for example.

The spokeswoman adds that while the current SmartGate system will be retired, Immigration and Border Control “has not defined the specific solution or how it will differ from the existing SmartGates for arrivals and departures.”

The deadline for bid submission was Jan. 31, though the agency told Smithsonian.com that they anticipate selecting a vendor by the end of April and implementing a pilot system at Canberra International Airport in June 2017.

The agency’s “Strategy 2020” report outlines its pursuit of increased technology at Australian entry points as a means to reduce wait times while allowing reallocation of agents into “areas requiring assessment, judgment, and agile operational response.”

Since 2012, Australia has already been engaged in collecting biometric data like fingerprints and facial recognition from certain visa holders as they arrive in-country. Partly it’s to identify persons of interest, as well as a strategy to establish identities for political refugees, those whose documents have been destroyed or lost, or who originate from areas where documentation is lacking or substandard.

And if the new United States directives on immigration and border control stand, Homeland Security will also be collecting mandatory biometric data from all visitors who enter and depart the country. 

“Biometric technology is extremely mature,” says Mizan Rahman, founder and CEO of M2Sys, a biometrics company based in Atlanta, Georgia. “And with passenger manifests, immigration knows who is coming. It’s not like they’ll be searching you against 100 million people. Passport scanning can be avoided.”

But if people bum-rush the entry gates, or start pushing and shoving, the whole process could quickly break down. The Australian immigration spokeswoman would only say that in such an event, or should there be any other gremlins in the software or hardware, “the department has robust contingency arrangements in place should system errors effect passenger movements and processing.”

“I don’t know anything that can 100 percent do what they want,” Rahman adds. “Automation is good, and you want to do it where you can, but you have to be practical, too. What does no-touch point provide you? I don’t understand what more Australia will get out of no-touch that they don’t already get from their SmartGate system.”  

Biometrics is often touted as a way to avoid identity theft. It’s really hard—but not impossible—to fake someone else’s iris when you’re staring into an eyeball scanner, but Rahman says he has no doubt that if it could somehow be hacked, someone would find a way to do something with it. Some of his company’s clients have therefore taken a slightly more conservative approach, such as the Turkish government, which for its national identification card program has opted to use only iris and fingerprint information rather than a person’s full suite of biometric information, Rahman says.

“First and foremost, as a government system, they already have all of your data,” Rahman says. “Whoever is maintaining the databases with that material just needs to be careful.”

Rahman also points out that the use of biometrics in daily life has become more and more commonplace; while once being primarily associated with criminal activity and law enforcement, most people don’t think anything of pressing their finger against a scanner on their phone to unlock it.

“Ten years ago, biometrics was a hard sell,” he says. “I think more people understand that it’s just another technology that makes us more secure, and helps people make fewer mistakes. It makes our lives easier.”

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