The Eyes Have It
From iris scans to the way you walk, biometrics is the new weapon against terrorism and crime
Sydney Morning Herald | January 2, 2005
By David Binning
If anything became glaringly obvious after the September 11, 2001 attacks it was the need to review airport security, and, more specifically, improve ways to accurately verify and crosscheck the identity of international passengers.
Subsequent terrorist incidents, the escalation of border protection issues and rising identity fraud fuel concerns that authorities are losing the technology battle against terrorists and other criminals.
But all that may change with increasing use of biometric technologies at international airports and by law enforcement agencies.
Biometrics refers to the ability to establish a person's identity using a digital record of unique physical characteristics, allowing people to be identified with virtually no margin for error.
Last May the departments of Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Customs and Justice jointly pledged $9.7 million towards developing biometric systems to improve border protection. Part of this allocation will be to extend the installation of SmartGate, an Australian-developed facial recognition system soon to be in use at major airports around the country.
After successful trials at Sydney Airport, the system is slated for Melbourne's Tullamarine early this year and for others soon after.
"This technology is the best weapon against identify fraud; it is a much more accurate way of determining whether a person is actually who they say they are," says Bob Nash, the head of passports at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The national project coincides with the Government's deadline to introduce facial biometric passports for all passport applications by October 26, the same deadline set by US customs and immigration. All Australian passports issued after this date are expected to have a computer chip containing an exact biometric imprint of the holder's face. The traditional mug shot will remain mandatory.
"[SmartGate] will serve as a major deterrent to terrorists and other criminals seeking to enter Australia illegally," Nash says.
This month, Immigration will outline plans for biometric information to be exchanged with other government agencies, including law enforcement, reflecting similar efforts in Europe, the US and parts of Asia. The department also plans a biometric database, collected from visa applicants, that would integrate with SmartGate and other systems.
Early last year NSW Police began expanding its electronic systems to allow for the more efficient matching and retrieval of biometric and other data. The NSW, Victorian and South Australian police forces use biometric fingerprinting systems, with these and other biometrics systems expected to be fully integrated into driver's licences and other ID items in the next few years.
Biometrics is also tipped to eradicate the bothersome - and notoriously flawed - "100-point" system for acquiring bank accounts and other facilities, and may also replace security systems for office building and computer access. Woolworths, for example, has used digital finger scanning to track hours and attendance for its 80,000 staff for several years.
Increased corporate, but especially government, spending on biometrics is expected to push worldwide sales to about $US3 billion ($3.9 billion) within the three years, according to research. Most of this will be spent on technologies designed to identify people according to their facial characteristics, iris patterns or fingerprints, while systems designed to recognise voice patterns are also emerging. Others, soon to arrive, will allow a person to be identified by their walk, and technologies capable of discerning the vein structure of hands or the spectral composition of skin are thought not far off.
In the weeks immediately after the September 11 attacks, the US Government began widespread bio-finger scanning systems at all international airports. All visitors to the US are required to provide an electronic finger scan before being granted entry.
Last year US customs began using a system which X-rays people for drugs and weapons without them needing to undress or without them necessarily knowing. It is a strong reflection of the times that public concern about terrorists and other undesirables has quelled what would years ago have been a storm of protest about such intrusive technologies.
Biometric smartcards can store much more than the now archaic-sounding ID cards, over which the Hawke Labor government was accused of trying to create a Kafkaesque nightmare 20 years ago. The consensus now, it seems, is that people will willingly sacrifice a little privacy for peace of mind.
"We've actually been quite reassured at the lack of opposition to biometrics," says Nash. "People do seem to be very supportive of technology that would stop terrorists."
But the president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, says that while biometrics has an important role to play, there are privacy issues that haven't been properly addressed. In particular, he cites the need for stronger legal protection governing the use of data which has been collected for one purpose, against being used for another.
"It would be Luddite to oppose biometrics, because it is a very relevant security technology, but the review of the Privacy Act [announced in August] has to come to grips with its expanding use, not only in government, but also in the private sector, which is largely unregulated," he says.
The issue was highlighted last year when Yusuf Islam (formerly the singer Cat Stevens) triggered an erroneous match with an airline "watch list" when trying to enter the US.
Fuelling the privacy debate are concerns about the fallibility of biometrics and any "technology" designed for security and identification. Sceptics argue, for instance, that biometric data may be as easy to forge as any other.
Studies have found that some iris scanning systems, albeit cheaper ones, can be duped simply by placing a false iris image over the eye with a hole cut out for the pupil. Such techniques have been proven to confuse biometric sensors into giving what is known as a "false accept".
According to Lorien Devitt, a commercial litigation solicitor with the law firm Slater and Gordon, biometrics raises the spectre of a person's physical identity - iris, fingerprint or face - being "burgled". "How do you replace an identity that's been stolen?" she asks. "How do you get your identity back?"
Ted Dunstone, director of Australian biometrics consultancy Biometix (a key company behind the SmartGate system) founded the Biometrics Institute in 2001; it is now drafting ethical and practical codes for the technologies' use in Australia.
While conceding the need for caution, he believes the sharper focus on security has spurred a finetuning of biometrics over the past few years, reducing error margins and helping it to be more widely accepted. "There was a big problem in the past with organisations having higher than reasonable expectations of the technology and subsequently feeling as though they'd been burnt when systems revealed certain flaws," Dunstone says.
In an annual address, the director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert Mueller, emphasised the importance of electronic networks in helping the bureau share complex information among its agents, and with other law enforcement agencies. The Australian Government is examining ways to develop similarly comprehensive systems that would link the widening NSW Police system with other states and agencies.
Biometrics, however, is not solely concerned with who's who in the human world. Environmental groups are using it as a non-invasive way to track and monitor endangered species. International animal protection group Wild Watch is using a biometric footprint recognition system as part of its efforts to save the black rhino, Bengal tiger and other threatened species.
In the case of the rhino, the system is designed to distinguish subtle differences in the footprints of black and white species while allowing observers to monitor their behaviour.
While keeping one eye on "Big Brother", it's reassuring to think that if not even the black rhino can go about its business incognito, the numbers of terrorists, fraudsters and other criminals may eventually dwindle.