Delays in the roll-out of SmartGate and the lack of a national strategy around it has led to a lower-than-expected take-up of the system, according to a report by the Australian National Audit Office.
SmartGate was implemented between 2007 and 2010 to address the increasing number of travellers passing through Australian airports. The hope was that by rolling out automated kiosks and gates in airports to process Australian and New Zealand passengers, the airports could clear passengers through immigration more efficiently. Anecdotal evidence indicated that a SmartGate could clear three times as many passengers in an hour as a manned booth.
When the project was first conceived in 2005-06, it was estimated that 10.84 million passengers would make use of SmartGate kiosks in 2010-11. Yet, by 2008, implementation of the system was already falling behind forecasts, due to delayed implementation in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney airports, and a slower-than-expected extension of the use of SmartGate to citizens of other countries that issue ePassports, the report said.
The forecast was revised to 4.16 million in 2009, but the report noted that the number of passengers who actually used the system in 2010-11 was only 1.81 million.
Customs received $7.9 million in federal funding in the 2012-13 Budget to increase the number of SmartGate terminals, in the hopes that it would increase usage of the system.
In May this year, Customs opened SmartGate to some US travellers, but the audit office suggested that it should focus on increasing the number of eligible Australian and New Zealand travellers to raise usage.
Of the total number of air-passenger arrivals in 2010-11, Australian and New Zealand passport holders made up 57.1 per cent, or 8.4 million. Yet, of these eligible travellers, only 42.24 per cent chose to use SmartGate.
The audit report suggested that the ease of use of the system needs to be improved to increase usage (around 8 per cent of passengers had trouble with the system, and were referred to manned desks). It also said that since implementation finished in July 2010, the program has lacked national direction, with individual airports deciding how best to run the systems.
Customs and Border Protection told the Australian National Audit Office in March this year that a national SmartGate strategy has been drafted, and will be finished by the middle of the year.
It was found that over half of the unsuccessful SmartGate interactions were due to facial-recognition failures (normally caused by the way the passengers are standing in relation to the SmartGate). Lowering the sensitivity of the system might enable more people to successfully use the system, but the audit report stated that this could also increase the risk that a passenger could get through SmartGate using someone else's passport.
The audit office also recommended that Customs enhance its monitoring and diagnostic tools to better identify anomalies in SmartGate data. For example, initial take-up numbers were positive when the project first launched, but it was found that there was an error in how the data was being collected — actual take-up rates were lower than reported. This error took 18 months to be discovered, when the take-up rate of SmartGate for one airport exceeded 100 per cent. The audit office is concerned that the length of time before the discovery of this error indicates that bad governance systems are in place.