Home Affairs revives facial recognition plan for airports

A plan to introduce facial recognition SmartGates in the arrivals halls of Australia’s international airports has been revived, but the federal government will now adopt a two-step system that more closely resembles the existing setup.

The next-generation system is also now not expected to be rolled out at some airports until the end of 2024, several years after the Department of Home Affairs first envisioned replacing the ageing fleet of gates.

Home Affairs will replace the SmartGates used in airport arrivals halls over the next two years. Credit: Home Affairs

Home Affairs has spent the last five years working to replace the IDEMIA (formerly Morpho) SmartGates rolled out in 2007, having experienced setbacks related to the technology and, more recently, the pandemic.

Border technology provider Vision-Box was first contracted deliver the new fleet of arrivals gates at a cost of $22.5 million in July 2017, with the department trialing the new SmartGates at Canberra Airport in early 2018 and Perth Airport in late 2018.

It was part of the wider ‘Seamless Traveller’ initiative, a zero-touch border processing transformation that was also expected to automate the exiting marshalling process and abolish the paper-based incoming passenger card

But in mid-2019, the trial was paused pending a review that ultimately found the Vision-Box solution was not “fit-for-purpose”. Home Affairs subsequently changed tack, handing incumbent IDEMIA a $30 million deal to support the existing fleet until July 2024.

In December 2019, the last update on the project provided by Border Force before the pandemic-induced travel ban prevented Australians from travelling overseas without an exemption, the rollout was delayed until 2021-22.

Now, almost three years on, Home Affairs has outlined fresh plans to replace the existing SmartGates at eight airport arrivals halls with a next-generation system under what it is calls the IDEMIA Life Extension Project.

According to a recent tender for site-related works, the new system will be deployed at Darwin Airport in November and be ready for go-live in December, with Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Coolangatta, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney airports set to follow.

Overseas arrivals have only recently surpassed one million travellers a month, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week, which is still only around half of the monthly pre-pandemic arrivals.

The new system to be deployed by Border Force is a “two-stage system”, much like the existing setup, requiring passengers to “process themselves at a SmartGate kiosk” and then a gate unit. “Biometric validation” will take place at both stages of the journey.

A Home Affairs spokesperson told InnovationAus.com that while new system adopted a two-stage approach to processing, it would “provide an improved experience for travellers entering the country, processing them more quickly and reducing bottlenecks”.

It is understood that while travellers will continue to use self-service kiosks to confirm and validate their identity, the new gates will use their face as the token, removing the need for the individual to present kiosk tickets at the gate.

The new system will use both face verification and face recognition, with the gate to search for the biometric captured at the kiosks and verify it against the live traveller, as well as their passport image.

It is distinctive from 2017 proposal which would have used facial recognition-enabled gates to match travellers against facial images stored in airlines’ advanced passenger processing systems, without the require them to present a passport or use a kiosk.

With all eight airports expected to receive new arrivals SmartGates sometime between late 2022 and the end of 2024, IDEMIA’s support and maintenance contract for arrivals SmartGates has climbed $12.8 million since the start of this year, bring its total value to $42.7 million.

IDEMIA was also recently awarded $180 million in contracts to replace the ageing fingerprints matching database used by law enforcement agencies across Australia.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

  1. Greg Eaton 2 years ago

    Notwithstanding the pandemic travel restrictions, I have a major problem with the current system – my passport bio-metrics do not match my face – even the photo on my passport – for whatever reason ??? I have spent many hours trying to board planes and more hours trying to enter countries that use the same bio-metric system. I cannot get a new passport unless I falsely claim that I have lost or destroyed mine – which I will not do. Simple answer for me is to no longer travel overseas.

    • Bryce 2 years ago

      Hi Greg,

      So they (the current gates) match based on the biometric image on the chip. The scanned image of the passport photo is also taken, but not as useful because the quality is poorer. If the image on the chip is not matching, they can do a physical check (the normal process for non-Australian passports). It is unusual for the the image to not match (1-1 check) but it does happen.

      If the issue is non-permanent/unknown, you can reach out to the passport office to get a new passport. You will need to hand in your old passport as part of the process. An issue with the chip means the passport is not fulfilling it’s purpose, so is the equivalent to a destroyed/damaged passport.

  2. Bryce 2 years ago

    Seamless traveller was always a difficult proposition. From ‘face in crowd’ type approaches, to just solely relying on the image captured at the gate when you present yourself, there are still real challenges in reducing the number of false positives and negatives, while also maintaining performance and security checks. Basically, a lot needs to go right, almost every time, for the old approach to work, or else the passenger is referred to manual human check. Which given the volumes is simply a no-go proposition. This approach, I believe, will allow the face check to happen at the kiosk, which will include the security checks etc, so that the gate is only validating against a 1-1 search, and probably a background check on the passport. More efficient and less likely to break. It seems a sound approach, until the technology catches up with desired outcomes. This is one area Australia should wait and see what our international partners do, rather then try and lead the way.

    • Greg Eaton 2 years ago

      Getting a new passport is easier said than done. I could not get an answer on the phone and could not get an interview to resolve the issue after weeks of trying.
      Simple answer – no more travel.
      Getting into India was actually laughable if not so damn troubling – last person to leave the airport on several occasions – I think they let me in so they could go home late at night – next time they remembered but it still meant I was last out of the airport.

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