Australia's 'backwards' border biometrics slammed

Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, has said biometrics technology is vital to Australian border security, but an audit of the department has found it neglected to properly research its current use within government.

Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, has said biometrics technology is vital to Australian border security, but an audit of the department has found it neglected to properly research its current use within government.

Under an AU$83 million initiative in 2005, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) had been granted a mandate by the federal government to investigate the use of biometric technology for border control in Australia. However, a report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) yesterday slammed the department for neglecting its responsibilities under the mandate because it only pursued facial recognition biometric technology.

"The current relatively limited fingerprint matching capability leaves the department in a position where it is unable to benefit fully from the international developments tending towards a broader use of fingerprints," the report states.

The department's approach differs widely from developments in the UK and US, which have included the introduction of fingerprint and facial recognition for border control, leaving Australia exposed to a potential cost blow out in the future since it will be unable to benefit from technological developments in those countries, according to the ANAO report.

But Senator Evans has defended the department, claiming that DIAC does use fingerprint and facial recognition technology.

"These biometrics are being progressively rolled out to various immigration processes, including visa applications," said Evans in a statement.

"Biometric equipment is also used to collect facial images and fingerprints from people in immigration detention and illegal foreign fishers," he added.

DIAC (then DIMIA) signed a deal in 2006 with Unisys to roll out fingerprint and facial scanning technology at immigration detention centres, which the government intended to use on refugees.

"Finger scan identifications at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin have uncovered cases of illegal foreign fishers attempting to use multiple identities. And earlier this month, biometrics helped identify a Ukrainian backpacker who appeared in a Brisbane hospital with amnesia," Evans said.

Evans also said DIAC had made significant improvements to its handling of identity management, however, the ANAO found that the department lacked any means to verify which staff -- including third parties, such as the Federal Police -- had accessed its identity repository.

DIAC torn by privacy
The audit also criticised DIAC's ability to comply with the Privacy Act in relation to the handling of biometric information since it lacked processes guiding staff about how and when biometric data should be destroyed.

However, DIAC rebuffed the claims on the grounds that the 1958 Migration Act entitles it to retain identity information, including biometric data, indefinitely.

The ANAO report also found that DIAC accidentally collected AU$6.3 million in its attempt to pre-emptively fund increased costs it expected to result from the use of biometric technology by the government. In 2005, the government passed legislation allowing the department to increase some of its visa application fees by five percent, contributing to the AU$6.3 million windfall.

The report also made reference to projects arising from the 2006 Palmer report which related to DIAC's (then DIMIA) wrongful detainment of Australian resident Cornelia Rau and citizen Vivian Solon Alvarez. Both individuals lacked the ability to identify themselves to authorities, resulting in Rau being detained for several years and Alvarez being deported.

The Palmer report formed the basis of the government's decision to allocate AU$495 million to improve DIAC's information systems under the Systems for People program, and a further AU$231 million over four years to improve its ability to identify people. The ANAO said DIAC's biometrics programs have been affected by the challenges the department has faced in delivering these projects.

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