Your treasured and travel-weary passport may soon become, like your first mobile phone, a relic of the past, if border agencies from the UK to Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and our own have anything to do with it.
The race is on to create a system whereby travellers will no longer need to present their documents to a border official or passport kiosk.
For the Australian traveller, this could mean the days of standing in line at our international airports will end.
That would be welcome news for those who were travelling through our international airports last Monday morning, when Australia experienced a nationwide SmartGate passport control machine systems outage that took almost six hours to resolve while passengers reported wait times of up to 90 minutes.
But it’s not all positive: If a similar IT failure was to occur after the implementation of the proposed biometric system, then Australia’s airports would likely come to a grinding halt.
With the removal of physical barriers at the border, and the demise of passports, there would be little opportunity for Australian Border Force staff to rapidly employ manual processing of travellers.
Most of us would be processed immediately
Under the future scheme, a traveller’s biometric characteristics – face, iris and/or fingerprints – would be collected unobtrusively by emergent technologies before departure and on arrival into Australia.
In near real time this information would be matched against existing data holdings to confirm a person’s identity and visa or residency status.
Behind this apparently unobtrusive technology would be artificial intelligence-driven assessments that would calculate the risk each traveller presents in terms of criminality and national security.
In January 2017, the Australian government announced that by 2020 it wanted a system in place to process 90 per cent of travellers automatically. All the technology, including artificial intelligence, needed to make this a reality exists today.
With rapidly expanding numbers of travellers each year and only modest budget growth, facilitating travel and security is getting harder.
In response to this challenge, the department has had to find smarter ways to process the large number of low-risk travellers. Biometrics and artificial intelligence-driven risk assessments are the obvious choice.
With these tools Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police could focus their finite resources on the small number of travellers who represent a risk. However, such thinking isn’t without risks.
Three problems to solve
The first problem here is that the artificial intelligence, and the self-learning algorithms that make it work, are becoming so complex that it’s increasingly difficult to understand how they reach certain decisions.
And the decisions made by artificial intelligence (AI) can often be biased based on the information they collect. For example, if on a given day a number of drug smugglers were wearing red jackets, an AI could potentially incorrectly assess that travellers wearing red jackets represent a higher risk of criminality.
The second problem is that new and emerging information and communications technology is ensuring technological disruptions continue to increase in frequency.
The third problem is that maintaining these systems is difficult and the underlying bureaucratic arrangements are still far too opaque. While Border Force is responsible for the operational activity at the border, Home Affairs is responsible for all of the financial, capability and IT infrastructure.
This point was illustrated in Monday’s outage: While Border Force made valiant efforts to reduce the impact of the outage by manually processing passengers, the responsibility for fixing the issue resided with Home Affairs. Regardless of who was responsible, this event has had very real economic costs and security implications.
If the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is right, then surely our biometrics – our facial characteristics and finger prints – should be worth a whole lot more to us than convenience.
I am not suggesting that Australians should reject this new technology, but that they shouldn’t be too quick to get rid of passports or handover their biometrics.
If the government intends to make further changes to Australia’s border security arrangements, then it needs to present a compelling case to the public that at the very least clearly articulates the risks.
John Coyne is head of the border security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.