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Australian passport authority developing facial recognition system


The Australian Passport Office is developing in-house a new facial recognition system to keep pace with the country’s two government biometrics initiatives, according to a report by IT News.

The passport authority has been using facial recognition and other biometric technology since 2005 when it began using Cognitec Systems software to detect passport fraud. It later expanded on its use of biometrics in 2011, forming a dedicated panel of providers.

The Digital Transformation Agency’s (DTA) upcoming release of a trusted digital identity solution, combined with the Attorney-General’s Department’s (AGD) new facial image matching hub, has prompted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to further assess whether its own infrastructure would be able to meet the new demands.

Currently in beta, the DTA’s ‘Govpass’ digital identity solution is designed for users of online government services to provide authentication without having to continuously resubmit their identifying documents.

Meanwhile, the AGD-operated national face verification service (FVS) allows law enforcement agencies to share citizens’ facial images to verify identities, as well as identify unknown individuals, in an effort to decrease cross-border crime.

Launched in November as part of a staged implementation, AFP and DFAT was provided with access to facial images on citizenship applications held by the Immigration department.

In the future, the service will be provided with other types of images including visa, passport and potentially drivers license photos, as well as data from more government agencies including ASIO and Defence.

The Australian government currently stores more than 100 million facial images for identity purposes, according to the AGD.

DFAT processes more than 25 million facial images a year, which amounts to about 8,000 a day. This number continues to grow at 2 million images annually.

Stephen Gee, assistant secretary of the passport policy and integrity branch, said DFAT likely has the country’s largest database of facial images.

To maximize the benefits of its facial recognition operations, as well as to meet the “high levels of availability” requirements of Govpass and the FVS, the agency has begun a “three-step systems improvement” drive.

“The first is upgrading our architecture. At the moment we have single instance architecture with warm disaster recovery, which means we can get back on our feet within about an hour if the system goes down,” Gee said.

“That’s fine for our current passport processing operation, and it’ll be fine for the new passport processing system that we’re developing and hope to put in place later this year. But the Attorney-General’s Department hub to which we’ll be connecting in July, and the DTA’s trusted digital identity framework initiative, will require high levels of availability. Being down for an hour won’t really be an option.”

In order to meet these high demands and scale to the future growth in the use of biometrics, the DTA is “building, not buying” a new facial recognition system, Gee said.

The system will feature a “highly available architecture, including hardware stacks fully replicated across two sites and an F5 load balancer,” he said, adding that development was on track to begin production in the first half of 2018.

In addition, DFAT has been working with the Defence Science and Technology Group on advanced facial biometrics research intended to help develop standards for image comparisons and establish facial examination as a “recognized forensic science”. The research is expected to contribute to the DFAT’s systems improvement drive.

“This is just a tease at this stage: we’re doing research with the DSTG about a new approach to facial recognition which we think might have the potential to revolutionize matching performance but I can’t really say much more about it at the moment,” Gee said.

The department will provide more details towards the end of the year “even if it is a failure” in to help lead to wider development in the area.

Meanwhile, the AGD believes that expanding the facial recognition system’s access to the private sector would represent a “natural progression” of its development, according to a report by Computerworld.

Andrew Rice, AGD assistant secretary of the Cyber and Identity Security Branch, said that there would be proof of concept opportunities for private sector access to the system in the fiscal 2017-2018.

Rice said the department believes there needs to be “as broad as possible defences against identity crime in Australia.”

The federal government is also likely to provide state and territory agencies with access to the system, subject to legislative regulations allowing them to participate and share data.

Previously reported, the Australian Privacy Foundation has recommended that the Australian government appoint a biometrics commissioner to protect the privacy of citizens.

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