Customs moving with the times
NOTHING brings an overseas holiday to a halt like running headfirst into an Immigration or Customs queue. But if you think the delays are bad now, imagine the scene when super-jumbos are delivering more people than ever to our international gateways. The journey from duty-free to the baggage carousel could be painfully long and tiring. Unless, that is, you have a biometric passport.
Since 2002, Australian Customs has been testing facial recognition technology that automatically identifies and checks arriving passengers without the need for human intervention.
The system, known as SmartGate, takes an image of a person’s face, then compares it to a 3-D digitised image stored in their passport.
If the two photographs are the same, the system quickly performs the normal checks. If a match is not successful, the person is referred to a Customs officer.
To improve accuracy, a passenger’s face cannot be obscured in any way, which means hats and sunglasses must be removed. But Customs says the technology can cope with ‘‘ normal variations to the face’’, including the addition of facial hair, changes in expression, and the effects of ageing.
Self-processing using SmartGate should not only be more efficient and convenient for passengers, it will help Customs officials focus on highrisk travellers and detect forged or stolen passports.
To use SmartGate, you will need to upgrade to an Australian ePassport, which incorporates a chip storing all your passport details and a digital image of your passport photo. Anyone who has received a new passport since late October 2005 will already have one.
Trials of facial recognition technology and the ePassport were undertaken at Sydney and Melbourne international airports between 2002 and 2005, using Qantas aircrew and selected members of the airline’s frequent-flyer program.
After evaluating the results and making some refinements, SmartGate Series 1 was rolled out at Brisbane’s international airport earlier this year.
Within the next couple of months, Customs plans to implement the system in Cairns, followed by Sydney in April next year and Melbourne one month later. Remaining international airports will follow.
Facial mapping is classified as biometric because it involves measuring a physical characteristic to identify a person.
Other familiar biometrics being used for security purposes include fingerprints and iris scans, but studies are exploring many others, even the unique way each of us walks or smells.
Some of the most interesting security technologies are being demonstrated at the Unisys Security Innovation Centre, a working laboratory that opened last month at the University of Canberra. Among them is vascular recognition technology, which captures an image of the veins in a person’s fingers or hand, and voice-recognition technology, developed during the past two years at the university to identify someone over a phone.
The centre is also showcasing the registered traveller system being used in some US domestic airports to capture a registered passenger’s two irises, 10 fingerprints and a facial image. Compared with SmartGate, the registered traveller system may seem a little over the top, especially when only one of the three biometrics is used for verification. But the system anticipates the possibility that US airports will eventually opt for different technologies.
Biometrics is not the only thing being explored by security experts. Researchers are looking at ways to monitor behavioural characteristics, in particular the way people act when they are, for example, angry or fearful. In a few years that should account for just about any Australian traveller not holding an ePassport. www.dfat.gov.au www.unisys.com.au David Carroll’s column on new travel technology appears monthly in Travel&Indulgence