No Papers Please

Australia Replaces Passports with Biometrics

The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection announced a plan to adopt a new contactless passenger identification system. The programme would eliminate the need for passport scanners, paper landing cards and manned immigration desks, and it aims to overhaul screening at Australian airports. If the process works as planned, passengers would be whisked through immigration and customs without having to stop or deal with any authorities. Manned desks will give way to electronic stations and automatic triage.

Australian officials believe that the system will be the world’s first to replace passports and paperwork with biometrics and the power of big data.

The new process goes beyond the current electronic border processing system, SmartGate, in place at Australian airports, which matches the face of a passenger with the image stored in the microchip of their e-passport. As part of the new contactless system, passengers will be processed by biometrics: face recognition, iris and fingerprints will be matched to existing stored data. By 2020, the government wants a system in place to process 90 percent of travellers automatically with no human intervention.

The department plans to pilot the technology in July 2017 at Canberra Airport, which handles limited flights to Singapore and New Zealand. After the trial, the system is expected to be installed at major Australian airports including Sydney and Melbourne in November, with the roll-out to be completed by March 2019.

The process of collecting and storing biometrics information from law-abiding individuals whose sole intention is to travel from place to place is bound to receive sharp criticism from privacy advocates. The Australian government, expecting potential challenges, has run the plan past its privacy commission. A law was passed in 2015 making it legal for the government to collect the necessary biometrics data for the programme from citizens and foreigners, including minors, at its airports. The data includes fingerprints, photos, audio, video, iris scans, fingerprints, height and weight.

Facial recognition tied to the secure chip in an e-passport is already in widespread use in UK airports. This is part of a growing trend. In 2016, the US Customs and Border Protection announced that facial recognition software would be used at all international airports in the US. New York’s JFK Airport began using facial recognition scanners as part of a $10 billion revamp.

To long-term science fiction fans, this use of biometrics could seem like a natural and likely progression. The technology has come far enough and become commonplace enough to fit into modern society. Replacing traditional documentation will offer enhanced security and convenience, albeit at a potential cost to privacy. Programmes like Australia’s end-to-end biometrics solution are a pilot for bigger things.