Dutton says facial recognition in lieu of passports 'very close' to reality

The country's newly crowned Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has said facial recognition at airports in Australia is merely a few 'technology generations' away from being rolled out.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian government has been trialling facial recognition at Canberra Airport, allowing passengers to walk through the terminal from their flight without producing their passport.

According to Australia's new Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, the trial has so far resulted in a 90 percent strike rate.

But despite saying the technology is "not too far off" and "very close indeed", the minister told the National Press Club on Wednesday that rolling the function out further than just Canberra Airport is "maybe a technology generation off".

"For the numbers of people coming through our airports, I want them to walk seamlessly down -- off the A380 -- and, in time, and we're not far off this, with facial recognition on the move, people's passports will stay in their pocket," Dutton said.

"They will walk from the plane directly out to the curbside and depart the airport."

Dutton said that if there might be "six or eight people we have concerns with", they will be spoken with if identified as appropriate to do so. Keen to embrace technology, the minister added that the current model with a lot of human interaction needs to be changed.

"And that needs to be applied across our business model, including with the incoming mail and cargo consignments, numbers of which are through the roof because of online shopping and the rest," Dutton explained. "That's why we need to embrace the technology."

Last July, the government signed a AU$22.5 million contract with Portugal-based Vision-Box to rollout an initial 105 new smartgates that will enable passengers to be processed using facial recognition.

Dutton's former responsibility, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, also turned to the market in September for help with transforming the country's visa system, seeking a provider to design, implement, and operate a new visa business.

Given the sensitivity of 8.5 million visa applications per year, Dutton was asked on Wednesday what precautions against problems such as conflict of interest the project was undertaking.

"Obviously we'll go through the normal procurement processes and we don't discriminate against Chinese companies, wouldn't against an American company," he said.

"The issue we have in this modern age is the volume -- the double digit growth out of China or India, key markets for us in terms of our tourism and education markets -- I don't have the staff, and never will, to provide the scrutiny that's required that we can now deliver through technology."

Of importance to Dutton and his new Home Affairs portfolio is how it can deliver that service at the lowest cost in a way that provides greater assurances around protections.

"It might be that there's a snippet of information that somebody provides, an email address, mobile phone number on their application form that, through the data analytics, can link that back to somebody who has links to somebody known to us or to one of our Five Eyes partners," he added.

Dutton earlier this month introduced two Bills into the House of Representatives that would allow for the creation of a system to match photos against identities of citizens stored in various federal and state agencies.

One Bill authorises his department to operate a central hub for communicating between agencies.

"The hub is not a database and does not conduct any facial biometric matching; rather, it acts like a router, transmitting matching requests received from user agencies to facial image databases. These databases conduct the matching using recognition software and return a response back via the hub," Dutton told Parliament at the time.

"The hub does not store any personal information, but does store data about transactions for auditing and oversight purposes. This approach enables the matching of images between agencies that operate different recognition systems that otherwise may not be compatible."

The other Bill would allow for real-time crime fighting, according to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

The pair of Bills make good on an agreement reached at COAG in October to introduce a national system allowing for a biometric matching.


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