A US government biometrics specialist who was due to have discussions on border control with New Zealand Customs will not now visit this country.
Larry Wright has cancelled the New Zealand leg of his Asia-Pacific trip after Customs declined to see him. Customs suggests he had too close an association with a vendor of face-recognition software.
Wright is a researcher at Sandia Laboratories, a US government establishment, founded in 1945 as the assembly and testing arm of the Los Alamos laboratory, working on the first nuclear bomb. It now performs a variety of technological research in the cause of protecting the US, and is heavily involved in the “homeland security” initiatives born out of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Wright has published papers and run educational sessions on the comparative effectiveness of biometrics, and specifically face recognition, which New Zealand Customs has been evaluating as a possible border security technique (see Customs faces up to new border technology).
Customs has been using Canadian product Imagis as a testbed to evaluate the usefulness of the technology in general and scope the kind of procedures and workflow that would have to surround any biometric passenger identification method.
Customs is not particularly inclining towards Imagis, IT manager Peter Rosewarne has always insisted; the choice of product, whether face-recognition or some other form of biometrics, will be the subject of an open tender.
One factor in the refusal to meet Wright, Rosewarne says, was that he was put forward as a contributor to biometrics discussion by local Imagis agent ITB Solutions. He will not go as far as to say Wright may be “tainted” with vendor bias, but says Customs has to be careful to avoid any impression of such associations.
“The heat is coming on us; there is pressure on vendors to put their best foot forward and they tend to use any method to do that.”
Customs is anxious that any overseas contacts be made at government-to-government level, Rosewarne says.
“I talk to international experts in the field all the time,” he says.
ITB head Alan Osborne invited Computerworld to interview Wright, and last week said the visit to Customs had been “cancelled” and therefore Wright would not be coming.
Rosewarne says Wright’s visit was never more than a “proposal” from ITB and Customs had not accepted. “I’ve never even seen this person’s credentials,” he says.
New Zealand Customs, Rosewarne confirms, is working closely with its Australian counterpart, which is testing the SmartGate facial recognition system for passport verification on Qantas staff at Sydney Airport in the first phase of a project expected to lead to nationwide usage across all international air travellers.
SmartGate and its surrounding procedures are a collaboration of Customs, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, and Passports Australia.
Rosewarne says New Zealand Customs is not inclining towards the SmartGate system or the German Cognitec face-recognition technology at its heart, any more than it is towards Imagis. The technology of an IT-aided border control system matters less then its procedural aspects, and it will be possible to pass information between New Zealand and Australian systems even if they use different biometric software, he says.