Facial recognition technology would be put to use to completely change how we organised border control.
While this might all sound like some big brother surveillance conspiracy, there are very real economic reasons for why the Department of Home Affairs wants us to say goodbye to our passports.
With rapidly expanding numbers of travellers each year and only modest budget growth, facilitating travel and security is getting harder.
In response to this challenge, the department has had to find smarter ways to process the large number of low-risk travellers. Biometrics and artificial intelligence-driven risk assessments are the obvious choice.
With these tools the Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police could focus their finite resources on the small number of travellers who represent a risk. However, such thinking isn’t without risks.
Three problems to solve
The first problem here is that the artificial intelligence, and the self learning algorithms that make it work, are becoming so complex that it’s increasingly difficult to understand how they reach certain decisions.
And the decisions made by artificial intelligence (AI) can often be biased based on the information they collect. For example, if on a given day a number of drug smugglers were wearing red jackets, an AI could potentially incorrectly assess that travellers wearing red jackets represent a higher risk of criminality.
The second problem is that new and emerging information and communications technology is ensuring technological disruptions continue to increase in frequency.
The current speed of technological developments is drastically reducing the life cycle of technological investments — particularly when it comes to applications that rely on the underlying infrastructure of servers, networks and storage. So traditional public-sector approaches to technological innovation projects require greater capital expenditure more often.
The third problem is that maintaining these systems is difficult and the underlying bureaucratic arrangements are still far too opaque. While Border Force is responsible for the operational activity at the border, Home Affairs is responsible for all of the financial, capability and IT infrastructure.
This point was illustrated in Monday’s outage: while Border Force made valiant efforts to reduce the impact of the outage by manually processing passengers, the responsibility for fixing the issue resided with Home Affairs. Regardless of who was responsible, this event has had very real economic costs and security implications.
If the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is right, then surely our biometrics — our facial characteristics and finger prints — should be worth a whole lot more to us than convenience.
I am not suggesting that Australians should reject this new technology, but that they shouldn’t be to quick to get rid of passports or handover their biometrics.
If the Government intends to make further changes to Australia’s border security arrangements, then it needs to present a compelling case to the public that at the very least clearly articulates the risks.