Biometric pace of change gives Canberra the jitters

The Australian government has high hopes for biometric identification to cope with increasing numbers of international travellers, but the rate of technological change is causing investment jitters, say government insiders.

The Australian government has high hopes for biometric identification to cope with increasing numbers of international travellers, but the rate of technological change is causing investment jitters, say government insiders.

Despite government enthusiasm for biometric technology, programs like Australian Customs Service's facial recognition system SmartGate, and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship's (DIAC) initiatives, have been forced to move ahead cautiously.

Hold still: a face rendered by facial recognition software. Credit: Liam Tung

Biometric technology has changed at such a rapid rate that government departments face no other choice but to work on backend systems in preparation for biometrics deployments, while waiting for the emerging technologies to mature.

"Biometrics is a rapidly changing area so we've had to build our systems to be scalable and to take advantages in technology. In 2004 [when DIAC began investigating biometrics], it was hard to predict what was going to be happening in 2007," Janette Haughton, assistant secretary for DIAC's identity branch, told ZDNet.com.au.

However, she said, the government has worked towards establishing the infrastructure to support the use of multiple types of biometric data, such as the Identity Service Repository -- a content system that holds biographic and biometric data, facial images and scanned proof of identity documents.

DIAC has also established the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS) -- a database the government uses to ensure the people they detain are who they claim to be -- and the National Identification Verification and Advice (NIVA) section of DIAC.

Besides technological change, there is a culture of resistance to fingerprinting in the community -- a factor which may be holding back government from adopting the technology.

According to Dr Clive Summerfield, director of National Centre for Biometric Studies at the University of Canberra, fingerprinting is viewed negatively in Australia because of its intrusiveness.

"Fingerprinting in Australia is not seen as an inviting technology. A lot of people won't have a problem with it, but then a significant minority will have a severe problem with it," Summerfield told ZDNet.com.au.

To date, DIAC has explored several forms of biometric security, spanning facial recognition, fingerprinting and iris scanning, according to Haughton. In Australia, however, DIAC has limited its application of fingerprint and facial recognition to detention centres, holding back its use for the wider community.

"Our focus is on non-citizens applying for visas," said Haughton.

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