The federal government’s digital verification plans are in disarray after the national crime intelligence commission’s troubled biometrics project with NEC Australia was suspended and staff members were escorted from the building by security.
The Biometric Identification Services project between NEC Australia and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC, formerly CrimTrac) was suspended at the start of June, InnovationAus.com can reveal, but NEC staff in Canberra working on it were not informed until last Monday, when they were told to leave by ACIC security.
The project has been suspended until this Friday, pending further contract negotiations between the parties.
The suspension of the over-budget and delayed project also throws a huge cloud over the Digital Transformation Agency’s own biometric project, which received an additional $92.4 million from the government in last month’s budget.
It comes as the government has declared that it wants to give all Australians a “single digital identity” by 2025.
NEC Australia won a $52 million tender for the Biometric Identification Services project in early 2016. The project involved replacing the ACIC’s National Automated Fingerprint Identification System with a “multi-modal biometric identification” service, incorporating fingerprints, footprints and facial recognition.
But the project is running behind schedule and is understood to be returning a high amount of false positives. Concerns also surround the project’s overblown budget, which is believed to have already cost more than $100 million.
The contract, which was meant to run until 2021, was suspended in early June. Late on the 4th June, NEC Australia staff working in the ACIC office in Canberra were escorted from the building by security after having their access rights revoked.
An internal email sent to NEC Australia staff following the incident, obtained by InnovationAus.com, said the company and ACIC had “mutually agreed” to suspend the project until 15 June pending “further contract negotiations”.
“It was the belief from ACIC that we would have advised NEC staff that work was being suspended on the project, which was clearly not the correct assumption. There was no intention to cause concern to NEC staff,” the internal email said.
“With work suspended and pending current contract negotiations, it was deemed appropriate that NEC staff should have their access rights revoked. Again, it’s important to note that there was no intention to cause concern to NEC staff.”
An NEC Australia spokesperson declined to comment on the suspension of the ACIC project. An ACIC spokesperson also declined to comment on the trouble-plagued project.
“The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission does not make any public comments on commercial matters,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.
The ACIC selected NEC Australia to develop a national capability for multi-modal biometric identification in May 2016. The tender was for the development of the service in 2017 and ongoing management and support services for five years.
The Biometric Identification Services project involved replacing the legacy fingerprint identification system with a new system that could incorporate more biometric data, including facial images. The project was also meant to lay the foundation for the integration of additional biometric modes in the future.
The project marked an “important milestone” for NEC Australia, but by December 2016 it was already behind schedule, In August last year, PwC was called in to review the ailing project, as it became clear that it would not be completed by the June 2018 deadline.
Its report, which hasn’t been publicly released, found the project’s costs had blown out to $94.6 million by November last year, and posed a “high risk” for ACIC. The report found that it would not be completed by the June deadline due to a “systemic pattern of delay”.
The report recommended that facial recognition technologies be removed from the system in order to cut costs.
“The project has been highly challenging to date and presents a high risk to the ACIC. There is low confidence in the likelihood of delivery which requires focus to achieve turnaround,” the report said.
The project has now been suspended as ACIC looks to renegotiate the contract with NEC Australia. The crime commission will also likely have to negotiate a further year on the contract for the current NIFAS system provider, French firm Morpho.
The series of setbacks for the project, culminating with its suspension last week, will be troubling for the federal government, which has been looking to greatly expand its digital biometrics capabilities.
It comes as Digital Transformation Minister Michael Keenan declared on Tuesday that Australia will be “one of the top three digital governments in the world” by 2025 thanks to a new strategy.
Last month’s budget also allocated $92.4 million to the DTA for the next phase of the Govpass project – a digital identity system aiming to provide a “simple, safe and secure choice for people to verify who they are and access government services online”.
Passport photos are also expected to be added to the database for the Govpass digital identity system. Govpass will be trialled through eight high-volume government services.
The DTA declined to comment on the suspension of the ACIC biometrics project, instead referring to the ACIC’s statement, despite the agency also not commenting on the issue. A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson also referred to ACIC’s comments.
The DTA also declined to comment on how the ACIC’s biometric capabilities are meant to work with its own verification services, and whether the current suspension will delay or stall the government’s wider plans in the space.
It’s another embarrassment for the DTA, which was recently criticised during a senate estimates hearing over its role in the education department’s doomed apprenticeship platform. The $20 million national apprenticeship management IT system was shuttered last month due to “systemic project weaknesses”.
The DTA had been consulting on the project since April last year, but the agency said the blame should be placed on the education department for its eventual failure.
NEC Australia has worked on a number of biometrics projects in the country already, including providing facial recognition technologies to the Northern Territory Police Force since early 2015.
The federal government also introduced the Identity-Matching Services Bill 2018 to Parliament in February, facilitating the creation of an interoperability hub to be run by the Department of Home Affairs, allowing for the exchange of biometric data between jurisdictions.
It followed a CoAG agreement late last year that saw every state and territory to agree to provide drivers’ licences images to the biometrics system. The legislation will see the creation of the Face Identification Service and an expansion to the Face Verification Service.
Numerous digital rights and civil liberties organisations have criticised the bill and the government’s ongoing efforts to expand the use of facial recognition technologies in Australia.