Australia Tests Biometrics at Airports as Part of Immigration Program

SYDNEY -- Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone on Thursday unveiled the latest step in an ongoing trial to capture and store biometric information of people entering Australia at Sydney airport in a bid to strengthen border security.

During the six-month trial, fingerprints, iris scans and facial information will be collected from selected travelers on a voluntary basis.

"The trial tests our capacity to record, store and match biometric information effectively and efficiently," Vanstone said in a statement.

The first group targeted are overseas travelers selected for further checking by immigration officials at Sydney airport.

The second group, comprising refugees traveling to Australia from Africa, will have their biometric information recorded before departure. On arrival in Sydney, they will be asked to again provide their information to test the technology's capacity to match the information.

"In the future, we could also take biometric information from people turned around at the border and add this information to travel alert lists," Vanstone said.

The trial began last year with laboratory tests, but this is the start of the first live trial in operational areas.

A spokesman for Vanstone told Kyodo News the purpose of the trial was purely to test the department's ability to collect and check biometric data.

Different government organizations will be able to access the information, however, including the police.

The spokesman said around 300 people had already volunteered their information, and he did not see why volunteers should have any concerns.

He said the use of this type of biometric information in a passport or identity card was a long way off.

The trial is part of a four-year program of testing and implementing biometrics systems across different government departments.

In a separate biometric trial, Australian Customs has been testing a facial recognition system called Smartgate at Sydney and Melbourne airports since 2002.

The Australian government in October is also set to launch new e-passports.

The technology will allow the facial recognition system to scan a face and match it to a photo stored in a microchip in the passport.

Vanstone also announced Thursday a new "counterterrorism" passport alert system between Australia and the United States.

Under the trial, if a person checks in for a flight to Australia using U.S. travel documents, there will be an automatic search against a database of lost, stolen or invalid documents.

Vanstone said the technology was critical because over 3 million passports from member countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation have been lost or stolen.

"In the wrong hands they could provide access to Australia to people who are not entitled to it, including terrorists and criminals," she said.

The trial is part of the Regional Movement Alert List, an APEC counterterrorism initiative.

New Zealand is planning to join the trial later this year and other APEC countries are expected to join in the future.

An evaluation report of the trial will be presented to APEC leaders in November.

(c) 2005 Associated Press

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