Border chief lays out Australia’s ‘seamless’ travel and trade future

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The head of the Australian Border Force will depart later this year, hoping to leave a legacy of the beginnings of “seamless” passenger travel and highly automated border protection systems, all driven by biometrics, troves of data and artificial intelligence.

In an interview with, outgoing Australian Border Force (ABF) Commissioner Michael Outram laid out the tech heavy border systems he says citizens want and Australia will need to keep up with growing travel and trade.

“You turn up at Changi [Airport in Singapore], your face is your passport, you don’t have to get a document out of your pocket – it could be on your mobile phone,” Commissioner Outram says of the potential future travel system.

“You arrive in Australia [and] we’ve already pre-cleared you from an immigration point of view because we know who you are, we have your biometrics, you could walk off the air bridge and your bag could in theory go straight into the belly of a domestic flight.”

At final destinations smart gates would be open in anticipation of the specific passenger, closing only if there was a problem.

“But you can only do that if we start to use data and AI,” said Mr Outram, a respected former London detective who succeeded Roman Quaedvlieg in 2018.

ABF Commissioner Michael Outram at the HTX TechX Summit in Singapore this month. Image: HTX

It’s not a new endeavour for the ABF and Department of Home Affairs, which have struggled for years to replace ageing smart gates and digitise paper based travel documents.

Commissioner Outram tells that passengers increasingly want “seamless” travel with far fewer contact points. But wide acceptance requires an “ongoing conversation” with the community about the value of faster departures and arrivals, and the realities of Australia’s borders.

“If the permission is a green light, we haven’t got a problem – we’re waiving 99.97 per cent of people through. [But] if a permission is denied, you have to have a very auditable history of why that person has been denied,” Commissioner Outram said.

“To make sure there is no bias, to make sure it’s lawful and that we are accountable. Ultimately a human will have to make that decision [to deny permission] not a machine.”

The ABF currently has around 5,500 Border Force officers to manage airports, seaports, the customs service, and act as the coast guard for 33,000km of coastline.

“The volume and speed of travel and trade over the next decade is going to exponentially increase,” Commissioner Outram says. “Industry in particular want more predictability in their supply chains and certainty in border arrangements.

“With that volume increase, I can’t possibly expect the government to give me a commensurate increase in the number of officers I’ve got. They can’t afford it, it’s not going to happen.

The solution, according to Australia’s top border official, is to augment and amplify the work of officers with big data and emerging technology. This starts with digitisation processors like passenger decelerations and sharing data with other nations and industry, while building up internal systems.

“So that we can automate far more of our screening [and] far more analysis,” Commissioner Outram says. “I think there’s an opportunity to not only maintain risk at the same level, but actually speed it [travel and trade] all up and de-risk it at the same time.”

He points to operation ‘Tin Can’ as a sign of the potential.

In late 2022, the ABF partnered with other nations and global customs groups to bust drug traffickers by gathering intelligence from private shipping firms’ data.

“For six weeks a number of shipping lines agreed to provide us with data that we hadn’t seen before from sensors within their supply chains,” Commissioner Outram said.

“And in that six weeks, we seized 100 tonnes of cocaine that we wouldn’t otherwise have seized.”

Tin Can, which trialed new data analysis and visualisation tools, also led to 43 arrests and hundreds more kilos of drugs seized.

“Admittedly, in that trial, the analysis of the data was being done by humans. But you can see where we’re heading here, because that’s just one microcosm of what’s out there in our supply chains globally.”

The tech heavy detection is also underway within the ABF, with a small “fusion” team of data scientists, ICT leaders and operational officers working on discrete projects to optimise the detection of illicit goods.

“They developed some machine learning capabilities and algorithms based on, not just data, but also information that we possessed post-detection of illicit goods on cargo. And through those algorithms we then identified illicit goods that we wouldn’t otherwise have identified,” Commissioner Outram said.

It’s the type of technology experimentation – “not shrouded in bureaucracy” – that forms the basis of ABF’s upcoming ‘Targeting 2.0’ system.

The ABF wants it to eventually pull together all its assessments of border-related threats, risks and vulnerabilities, combine them with new data from industry and partners, to feed artificial intelligence that aids with officers’ decision making.

The foundations for the system and the wider move to digitisation are being built now and come with “robust” protections for the new risks the automation brings, according to the Department of Home Affairs chief data officer, Pia Andrews.

“Obviously, anything that we’re building internally, we are using robust, scientific mathematical processes through data science. We have a well established data science product lifecycle and there’s lots of peer review and overview and governance through that process. We have AI governance controls, mandatory training for people working in that space, we have an AI ethics policy,” she told

The tech projects are also still subject to regular controls like security checks and privacy impact assessments.

Ms Andrews, who has worked with other state and national governments as well as at US tech giant Amazon Web Services before joining Home Affairs last year, said all staff in the portfolio are also provided training to mitigate the new data and AI risks, while controls are also being built into the systems.

“Even in on our own architecture we’re building in, and already have built in, things that are required for monitoring. Monitoring for models, monitoring for impact, monitoring for outputs, monitoring the bias.

“We’re not just looking at bias at the training data phase, but looking for bias in the output and the impacts of the systems that we’re building. So we certainly haven’t waited we’ve certainly got ahead of the curve.”

The risks can’t ever be entirely mitigated and some attempts to digitise parts of the travel system have already been costly failures.

But Commissioner Outram says the risks can be managed and Australia can’t afford not to digitise its border systems.

“If as a country we are to remain competitive, economically, connected to the world and at the same time maintain a border that allows us to protect ourselves from harm and risk, then we have no choice but to go fully digital at the border over time.

“AI, and in time quantum technologies, will actually turbocharge our ability to do that. But we’re not waiting. We can’t wait for a big bang. It’s not going to happen. There’s an evolution and we’re already on the journey.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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