Customs eases info swap

A greater number of government agencies could more easily gain access to information about people and goods coming into the country thanks to a Customs IT upgrade.

A greater number of government agencies could more easily gain access to information about people and goods coming into the country thanks to a Customs IT upgrade.

Customs is in the process of choosing middleware that will help its own officers and those of other government agencies to access Customs data more easily and securely from a remote base, says financial chief John Kyne.

He offers a long list of agencies interested in accessing Customs’ information on movement of passengers and goods, from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and immigration to "social welfare" agencies under the Ministry of Social Development, the Department for Courts and Inland Revenue.

These agencies already have data-sharing agreements with Customs allowed under privacy law, says Kyne.

"This is a matter of using technology to make access easier."

It is possible new agreements will be required, but any such developments will be undertaken with due attention to privacy considerations, Kyne says.

Private organisations such as airlines and travel agencies will also be involved in the enablement exercise, in the light of information they can provide to Customs on movement of passengers and goods. They have no access to Customs data, says Kyne. Use of data provided by such organisations is governed by the Privacy Act, with stipulations on the use to which it may be put.

Such priorities compete with more attention-getting border-control issues such as biometrics, which is attracting controversy on both sides of the Tasman.

The Australian media continue to raise questions over technological evaluation contracts relating to the SmartGate facial recognition trial at Sydney Airport.

Australian Customs has spent more than $A1.2 million on the SmartGate project, according to a recent Senate hearing. Our Customs department has conducted prolonged back-office trials of the concept, using Canadian Imagis software, but according to Kyne has spent "next to nothing, apart from an investment of time and effort".

Australian vendor Biometix was paid more than $A600,000 to develop software for the Smartgate system and provide ready-built components of its own. Before final selection, advice was taken from the purportedly independent Australian Biometrics Institute on competitive offerings. Biometix chief executive Ted Dunstone was the chairman of the institute during the period of evaluation, until February this year, when CSIRO scientist Dr Geoff Poulton took over.

Last month Computerworld put questions to Dunstone about the apparent conflict of interest. A Biometix spokeswoman, on his behalf, says proper process had been followed to ensure there would be no such conflict. The spokeswoman denies a report that Biometix, or Dunstone personally, has an investment in the chosen face-recognition software, FaceVACS, from German company Cognitec Systems. Biometix’s software investment is in middleware to interface FaceVACS to other elements of the SmartGate system, she says.

Australian media, while reporting similar assurances from Dunstone, continue to question his dual role.

Questions are also emerging over the accuracy of the systems being used, with two Japanese businessmen successfully exchanging identities at a recent demonstration of the technology.

Kyne says there is no projected date for implementation of any biometric system at New Zealand borders. IT manager Peter Rosewarne previously estimated practical trials at about a year in the future, but Kyne says biometric border protection is not Customs’ only technological priority, citing the web-enablement exercise.

Nor is there a "launch date" for the results of that project, he says. Enhancements will be implemented step by step. "We see developments like this as simply business as usual."

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