Customs, Police eye face-recognition technology

The Customs department is interested in face-recognition technology for border control and is likely to undertake a "proof of concept" trial within the next year, says information systems manager Peter Rosewarne.

The Customs department is interested in face-recognition technology for border control and is likely to undertake a “proof of concept” trial within the next year, says information systems manager Peter Rosewarne.

No definite proposals are on the table for deployment of a biometric identification system for the department, Rosewarne says, but Customs is looking at “the whole question”.

It has already examined a number of identification and authentication technologies. “Iris scans, fingerprints, DNA. We even looked at one that relies on gait — the way you walk is apparently very distinctive.” But face recognition looks like the leading contender at present, says Rosewarne. “It’s the least intrusive.”

That said, its failure rate in terms of falsely identifying an innocent person as someone worth questioning “is more than one would expect”, he says.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in particular, border protection authorities throughout the world are considering these technologies, he says. “We’ve just fallen in line with the rest of the world in looking at them.”

Rosewarne was responding to suggestions from Vancouver-based Imagis and its local agent, Wellington company ITB, that some New Zealand government agencies had expressed definite interest in what the companies had to offer.

The sensitivity of the system is adjustable, says Imagis technology chief Andy Amanovich, and Imagis recommends that for border control applications it be set at the point where a few false positive identifications will occur, accepting this as the cost of ensuring that people of genuine interest are not missed.

Rosewarne says such technology has to fit smoothly into the normal workflow of the organisation. Customs has not yet considered that aspect in detail, he says.

The Imagis system does not store images of the face, but a 300-byte string representing its crucial dimensions. This can be checked in a second or two against millions of similar identifying strings in a database.

A police spokeswoman says there are no plans at present for that department to introduce face-recognition software in any role. Police have looked at the Imagis software.

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