Australia’s grand plan for contactless automated immigration checkpoints

Credit: Everett Historical ?

ITEM: Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection is planning a radical overhaul of the country’s airports, with the goal of leveraging biometrics and big data analytics to let travelers waltz through immigration and customs automatically.

Imagine that.

The idea is to develop a contactless system that eliminates the need for passport scanners, arrival forms and even immigration checkpoint desks, reports the Sydney Morning Herald:

… passengers will be processed by biometric recognition of the face, iris and/or fingerprints, matched to existing data. By 2020 the government wants a system in place to process 90 per cent of travellers automatically, with no human involvement.

“I think it could be a world first,” said John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He said it was the long-term vision of the most senior immigration bureaucrats to “streamline” the arrivals process so international passengers could “literally just walk out like at a domestic airport”.

As a frequent traveler, I have to say this is a very appealing idea. Some airports have tried to  harness technology to make immigration lines move faster, but they don’t always seem to help much. During my recent trip to PTC 2017 in Honolulu, I encountered a self-service kiosk upon entering the immigration area. The idea was for me to scan my passport and boarding pass, take a picture of my face, confirm the info on the screen, and get a printed receipt (complete with pic).

However, the next step was to go stand in a long queue for the immigration desk so I could show the immigration officer my receipt. In summary, instead of queueing up to hand the officer my passport, I had to queue up to hand him my kiosk receipt. So I didn’t feel I saved any time from going through the self-check-in process (though I suppose I did save the immigration officer the time and effort it would have taken him to scan my passport for me – progress!).

A contactless system would be a great improvement on the travel experience. On the other hand, it also sounds like an incredibly complex and ambitious undertaking. The technology involved would have to work with a level of accuracy that even the best biometrics haven’t really achieved. Even 99.999% accuracy isn’t going to be enough for security forces worried about that one bad actor who manages to slip through unflagged, let alone politicians who regularly blame immigrants for virtually every problem the country has.

Apparently the Australian government itself isn’t quite sure what technology solutions are out there, the SMH reports:

Though the government knows what it is looking for, it doesn’t yet know what it’s going to get. “The department is asking tenderers to provide innovative solutions to allow arriving travellers to self-process,” an immigration spokeswoman said.

“The department has not therefore defined the specific solution or how it will differ from existing arrivals or departures SmartGates.”

According to the report, the contactless immigration scenario also depends heavily on big data:

The innovation was possible because of the massive amount of passenger data – including ticket information, travel history and criminal records – sourced globally and analysed in the back room, Dr Coyne said.

However, for that to actually work, that data would have to be shared among everyone from airlines and travel websites to law enforcement and intelligent agencies. And that data often exists within silos that aren’t always compatible. And that’s before you get into the legal requirements for sharing personal data.

Without a globally standardized (and legal) way to collect, store and share all the relevant data needed for an immigration control checkpoint, at the very least you’re going to need a fallback position for all the travelers who aren’t in your system – which in this specific case is likely to be most people who don’t live in Australia, which sort of defeats the purpose of implementing such a system in international airports.

To be sure, contactless immigration isn’t impossible – it’s quite plausible, once the relevant technology is mature enough and widely distributed, and once the data-sharing issues have been sorted. But that’s going to take time – potentially more time than the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is allowing itself:

The department wants to pilot the technology in July at Canberra Airport, which handles limited flights to Singapore and Wellington. It would be introduced at a major airport such as Sydney or Melbourne in November, with the rollout completed by March 2019.

March 2019? Good luck with that, mate.

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