Australia launches biometric passport checking

Biometric passport checking is to launch in Austrialia despite being trialled for only six weeks of the original six-month test

The Australian Customs Service (ACS) will next week launch its biometric passport checking system "publicly," drastically shortening its trial period and before concerns about how to apply it to all Australians have been resolved.

The technology, Smartgate, was originally to undergo six months' testing in a live environment before ACS would rubber-stamp it. Leon Beddington, spokesperson for ACS, said the trial would continue but that early results had been encouraging enough to "move its launch up the agenda".

Smartgate scans each volunteers' face and compares it with a mathematical representation of their facial features derived from four photographs of the individual taken prior to the trial. The representation is then stored on the passport.

According to a Qantas gazette, the system has checked over 6,000 passports belonging cabin crew who volunteered for the trial in its first six weeks of operation, achieving an 80 percent success rate. The ACS had been aiming for a success rate above 90 percent, but according to Beddington the photo-matching technology, the component with which the ACS is concerned, is not to blame for instances in which the system failed.

"The photo-matching technology is working well but ...there will be mismatches caused by the fact that the data on the passport doesn't match other data or it's been incorrectly recorded," said Beddington.

Beddington rejected the notion that the launch was premature, but gave indications that ACS is facing pressure from "overseas influences" to accelerate the Smartgate programme.

Beddington would not reveal whether they were commercial, political or regulatory. However, he did say that it was "becoming increasingly difficult to [tell them] we're just trialling it [repeatedly]".

"There has been a lot of overseas interest in the technology what the result of that interest might be we can't discuss," he added later.

The ACS yesterday also refused to address questions concerning how the technology would extend beyond the trial sample group to the Australia's broader population of eight million passport holders.

"The passport's not our business -- our business is whether the face-matching technology works and it does," said Beddington.

The responsibility for transforming the Australian travel documents into a form that Smartgate and Customs will be able to use lies with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's passport authority, Passports Australia.

Passports Australia spokesperson, Bob Nash, said the team tasked with coming up with a method of incorporating the biometric data into Australian passports is facing a hefty dilemma. For its live trial of Smartgate the ACS uses a four image photo-matching technique which, according to Nash, improves its success rate.

Passports Australia already has around three-and-a-half million digital images stored in its databases and wanted to avoid the time and expense required to implement a four-image technique.

"As we've said before we've got millions of [digital] images on record. We've either got to convert our existing data or throw away all the images and start again," said Nash.

To be precise, Passports Australia has three-and-a-half million images and wants to develop a single image technique that can achieve the same level photo-matching success as ACS has with Smartgate.

"Clearly it's in everybody's best interest to make this as simple an exercise as possible. Rather than having to round up people to have four photographs taken of themselves from different angles, it would be much simpler if they were able to have a system where they submit a photograph as they do now," said Nash.

Nash said Passports Australia was unconvinced that the four-image technique was necessary and that it had achieved promising results from trials involving matching algorithms from digital images in its database with original images of the subjects.

Nash conceded that the team behind the project -- which must reported to federal Treasury on the progress of its research -- hadn't found a way to save its database yet and that it may have to adopt the four-image technique.

"We are prepared and able to do that if necessary," said Nash.

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