Auckland introduces facial recognition fast-tracks. Tom Allett reports.
After the successful use of facial recognition at Australian airports, New Zealand has now brought in the same system. In December 2009 the New Zealand Customs Service (NZCS) introduced Sagem’s automated passenger clearance product − SmartGate − to the country’s international airports, starting with Auckland. Wellington and Christchurch airports are due to follow later this year.
The move offers all New Zealand and Australian e-Passport holders travelling on trans-Tasman Sea flights the option to complete the customs and immigration arrival or departure processes using the automated system instead of reporting to a Customs officer.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key formally launched SmartGate at a ceremony at Auckland International Airport on December 3.
SmartGate uses facial recognition biometric technology and the information stored in the microchip inside e-Passports to perform the identity check that is usually conducted by a Customs officer.
The system already operates at most international airports in Australia for arriving New Zealand and Australian ePassport holders.
The introduction of SmartGate follows meetings between Mr Key and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in May 2009.
What are the benefits?
The New Zealand authorities are confident that SmartGate will streamline the trans-Tasman passenger clearance processes, thereby reducing the number of passengers queuing and give visitors a more positive first impression of New Zealand as a travel destination. Its Customs service says that the new facility will allow it to focus important resources on higher-risk passengers: “SmartGate will ensure our agencies at the border will work smarter, quicker and faster,” it said in a statement.
Facial recognition technology works by comparing a live image of the traveller against a digitised photo stored on a microchip embedded in the passport.
Biometric technology is used to map the underlying structure of each face, measuring the distances between the features. The information gathered is used to create a template of unique biometric measures for every individual and they are then applied in a biometric algorithm to determine a person’s percentage of match against a claimed identity. This is done by comparing the passenger’s passport photo against digital images taken by the system’s cameras. The proportions are then checked against the measurements contained within the ePassport data and if the images match, the traveller is cleared to pass through the control point.
Facial, fingerprint, iris, voice and many other biometric recognition technologies are of course now well-established as reliable and accurate means for establishing identity, but currently, the use of facial recognition technology at airports seems to be growing faster than the alternatives. This is hardly surprising as this technology is often quoted by industry-watchers as being especially well suited to use in a border processing system because it is fast and non-invasive. Such systems can also be widely implemented because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standard requires passengers’ photos to be stored in the ePassport chip and no other biometric data is needed.
A number of other facial recognition biometric technologies exist, but the NZCS says that not all developments are immediately suitable for implementation in a border processing system as they can increase processing time, be difficult to use, or create other difficulties.
On November 26, 2002, a SmartGate trial was launched in Australia with a transaction point installed at Sydney International Airport. Volunteer Qantas aircrew enrolled in the trial so that their digital facial images could be matched to their live images when they used the transaction point and the system quickly became accepted as the preferred alternative to manual processing. As the trial progressed, the Customs and Border Protection teams made improvements to the SmartGate transaction point, its software interface and the users’ interaction with the system. The trial was formally evaluated to assess the system’s accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness and Australian Customs and Border Protection engaged a strategic partner to help develop the SmartGate concept into a production system. In late 2003, proposals were invited from Commonwealth Endorsed Suppliers, and the Australian Customs and Border Protection services subsequently received and evaluated 12 proposals, which resulted in the selection of Sagem Australasia. In May 2009, the New Zealand Government directed the New Zealand Customs Service to implement the SmartGate system.
The SmartGate kiosk and gate use touch screen technology and thermal/magnetic ticket printer/readers. The kiosk also has an electronic passport reader, while the gate has a series of digital cameras, various sensors and mechanical doors. Both the kiosk and the gate computers contain the Sagem Securité Morphoface facial biometric software.
SmartGate communicates with the Customs services’ CusMod system via a web-based middleware layer comprising Microsoft .Net and IBM WebSphere Java technology.
The SmartGate system is assembled in Australia from parts manufactured from various locations, including the UK (passport readers), Sweden (ticket printers), Korea (touch screens), Australia and France.
While the NZCS says equipment and software prices are commercially sensitive, the NZ Government allocated NZ$38 million (US$27m) for the entire SmartGate project. This figure covered equipment purchases, operating costs for the duration of its working life and airport modifications.
Of course, the new technology doesn’t completely remove the need for a physical presence at the country’s borders. Customs officers will still be required to process any passengers that cannot be matched biometrically to their passport photo for whatever reason while, obviously, continuing their routine of monitoring potentially higher risk passengers and looking out for suspicious behaviour.
SmartGate will have difficulty processing passengers whose facial features differ significantly from their passport photo as extreme weight changes, aging, cosmetic surgery, injury and illness can affect the facial match. Though hairstyles have little or no effect on its effectiveness, SmartGate will also have difficulty processing any passengers whose facial features are obscured. Although it is able to compensate for slight variations in angle and distance, facial pose, illumination and expression are important factors in obtaining an accurate biometric match. Passengers are, therefore, advised to look directly at the cameras and hold a ‘neutral’ facial pose and the location’s lighting is carefully controlled to maintain ideal conditions.
The New Zealand ePassport expires every five years and this helps keep the passport holder’s biometric record up-to-date
SmartGate has a number of advanced biometric features but, for security reasons, Customs will not discuss the specific capabilities of the system. Its biometric settings can be varied, based on Customs’ preferred security stance. A high security setting has a lower tolerance for differences between the presenting passenger and the photograph stored in the ePassport. In contrast, a lower security setting would refer fewer passengers for manual screening, hopefully resulting in a better ‘passenger experience’. The NZCS says it has chosen a biometric setting that: “tends towards higher security”.
Auckland introduces facial recognition fast-tracks. Tom Allett reports.