Budget 2017: Border protection given AU$60m for biometrics

DIBP will use almost AU$60 million of its Federal Budget injection to enhance biometric matching, storing, analysis, and data sharing of facial images and fingerprints.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) has been given a total of AU$95.4 million in funding under the federal government's 2017-18 Budget, with almost AU$60 million of this to be spent on improving its biometric capabilities.

"This Budget provides AU$59.9 million over four years to enhance biometric storage and processing capabilities to contribute to a safer border and a safer Australia," Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton said on Tuesday.

"This funding will enable high-volume biometric matching, storing, analysis, and data sharing of facial image and fingerprint biometrics through the introduction of new technology."

According to DIBP, implementation of these capabilities will commence from July 1, 2017.

The biometric funding injection follows the Australian Federal Police (AFP) receiving a AU$321.4 million funding boost under the 2017-18 Budget in part to hire biometrics experts and covert online investigators, and to improve digital forensics capabilities.

Justice Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Counter Terrorism Michael Keenan added that the AFP has been facing increasingly sophisticated threats, with the nature of crime changing in the digital age.

Biometrics will this year also be added to the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS) by Australian law-enforcement technology agency CrimTrac under a AU$52 million contract with NEC Australia announced last year.

The new Biometric Identification System (BIS) will involve not only fingerprints, but also palm prints and facial recognition.

"The BIS will not only integrate with existing law-enforcement systems, but advance as our nation's biometric capability advances," Keenan said in a statement at the time.

"This is vital in the current national security landscape, because it is essential to have robust and efficient cross-border information sharing to support the law enforcement agencies that protect our communities.

"It's also vital our authorities are one step ahead of the sophistication of organised criminal syndicates who are adopting new and advanced technologies to exploit Australians and increase the misery they peddle."

The Australian government had allocated AU$700,000 to CrimTrac as part of its 2015-16 Budget for the development of the facial recognition system.

The federal government also announced last year that it would be spending AU$18.5 million to establish the National Facial Biometric Matching Capability for image-sharing purposes by government and law-enforcement agencies.

The facial biometrics system is used to cross-check identities of unknown persons against photos contained within government records.

The Attorney-General's Department (AGD) had said that the capability was designed to replace manual facial image sharing arrangements between departments and agencies, with the AFP, DIBP, ASIO, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Department of Defence, and the AGD under the auspices of AusCheck the first to gain access to the system.

Still images from licence plate cameras and CCTV can also be shared.

The Migration Amendment (Strengthening Biometrics Integrity) Bill 2015 [PDF] was also introduced to Parliament over two years ago for the purpose of preventing domestic terrorist threats by allowing for the collection of biometric data including fingerprints and iris scans from people arriving and departing through the SmartGate systems being implemented across all Australian international airports.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is also working with biometrics, last year announcing that it had partnered with Nuance Communications to extend its voice biometrics authentication service to its mobile app.

The ATO introduced "voiceprint" access to its contact centre back in 2014 in replacement of usernames, passwords, and security questions in order to prove identity, with the system creating a digital representation of the physical characteristics, patterns, rhythm, and sound of an individual's voice.

The ATO claimed that voice biometrics offer a higher level of security than passwords, PINs, security questions, and physical tokens, such as identity cards.

Privacy concerns have been raised over the use of biometrics by government departments, with Keenan previously making assurances that biometrics systems would have "strong privacy safeguards", falling within the remit of the Privacy Act.

These privacy breach concerns are especially pertinent given DIBP was earlier this year found by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) to be compliant with just one of the top four mandatory mitigation strategies.

While capable of handling internal threats, DIBP had "insufficient protection" against external threats, according to the ANAO, with DIBP under the belief that it is doing better than it is.

DIBP was also found by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to be in violation of the Privacy Act by unlawfully disclosing personal information when it published the details of approximately 9,250 asylum seekers back in 2014.

The source of the privacy breach was determined to be the copying and pasting of a chart from Microsoft Excel into Microsoft Word by a DIBP staff member, which resulted in the underlying data to render the chart being embedded in the Word document.

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