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​Biometric data and ePassports: Australian borders go digital

Australia's digital landscape is moving beyond its borders as the Federal Government announces a goal to broaden the use of ePassports and biometric identification.

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Image by CPOA, CC BY-ND 2.0

Speaking in Sydney at the Biometrics Institute Asia Pacific Conference, Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison said passport technology has come a long way in less than ten years.

"Australia first started using biometrics to manage immigration integrity in 2005," he said, referring to Australia's early adoption of ePassport technology. "By October 2015, most Australian passports will be ePassports, containing a chip that has a digital photograph and key data elements in an encrypted format.

"ePassports have provided an extra dimension of integrity checking to border, security and immigration agencies and airlines across the globe."

At all eight of Australia's major international airports, these ePassports have begun working hand-in-hand with SmartGates -- border control points that use the photographs and personal data encrypted on the ePassport chip to quickly identify people entering the country.

According to Morrison, these automated checks are only set to increase, with biometric data being used to speed up international arrivals and to "identify external risks long before an individual attempts to enter Australia".

"Before commencing their journey, the future traveller will provide border clearance information as part of the check in process. This data will then be passed on to Australian border protection agencies for assessment prior to arrival.

"The future traveller will pass through streamlined automated passport control systems that examine retained biometric data and that contained in the traveller's passport, against the traveller themselves upon physical presentation at the border.

"Should any match to intelligence or risk be identified, a border protection officer will intervene. If no risks are identified, it is expected that the traveller will move through automated systems in less than a minute."

This kind of digital identity check is expected to be used for a quarter of the 42.9 million Australian airport arrivals expected by 2016/17. And Australia isn't the only country digitising identities -- the Government also plans to share data with other countries.

"It is expected that access to expanded systems will increase the number of record matches as data stores are enriched and systems are enhanced," he said.

One of the major issues arising out of the digitising and sharing of personal information relates to privacy. While Morrison did not go into privacy details in depth, he said these "known concerns...need to be addressed".