Agencies eye Customs biometric trial

The Customs department's trial of face-recognition technology has brought interest from overseas customs administrations and other New Zealand government departments.

The Customs department’s trial of face-recognition technology has brought interest from overseas customs administrations and other New Zealand government departments.

The department is talking to other border control authorities such as Immigration, and to the Privacy Commissioner’s office and other bodies that can help in ensuring proper controls on the use of the technology.

“There needs to be a code of practice and industry self-regulation,” says Customs IT manager Peter Rosewarne, or undesirable privacy-invading practices might develop. If this happens the government may step in with regulations of its own — a less desirable outcome, he says.

The trial, involving Imagis equipment, has also excited interest from other vendors of biometrics technology.

Customs tells them it is conducting a trial of the broad concept of biometrics and how it might fit into its work environment. “We don’t want to hear from suppliers yet,” he says, emphasising that Imagis is simply a vehicle for tests.

The trial at this stage is internal, and does not involve members of the public. It is scheduled to finish early next year, Rosewarne says. Then a restricted passenger-facing trial might be begun, with aircrew verification as one obvious choice.

At some future date face-recognition or some other biometric technology might be used to implement a “trusted traveller” scheme, where passengers can volunteer to have their biometric data recorded and their records checked so that they can use the system to pass quickly through Customs.

The technology is improving all the time, Rosewarne says. Imagis has recently supplied Customs with its new version, which samples 692 points on each face, where the previous version used only 200. But Customs is still not prepared to let the automatic system make identifications on its own.

“We are not of the view that this technology should run unattended,” he says. There will always be a customs officer in attendance to check on any alerts raised. “We don’t see it replacing entirely anyone’s work.”

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