Australia remains well ahead of the queue on ePassports

Facial recognition system catches criminal with five different fake passports

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) expects all Australians travelling abroad to be using ePassports within eight years.

Although Australia is well ahead of the rest of the world in the implementation of electronic passports, the executive director of the Australian Passport Office (APO), Bob Nash, pointed out that the government only has the capacity to print around 1.5 million ePassports per year.

Despite this, more than 2.5 million Australians have already been issued ePassports, which is a substantial percentage of the 9.5 million passport holders in the country.

Nash said Australia's investment in ePassport technology parallels global developments.

"Australia was one of the first to [adopt ePassport technology],but in that short time we understand that there are around 50 million ePassports internationally; obviously this is a trend," he explained.

According to Nash, Australia is very much at the forefront of this trend. DFAT has been issuing ePassports since 2005.

He said Australia is even ahead of the United States in this regard, which is ironic considering the main driver of the program was to provide passports that comply with the US Visa Waiver Program (USVWP) requirements.

"After the events of September 11, 2001 the US mandated the use of biometric passports for countries participating in the USVWP," Nash said adding that the deadline was October 2004.

"We were the only country in the entire [program] that was ready to go in 2004. The most notable of those that weren't ready was the United States."

ePassports are simply passports with readable chips embedded within. Nash said the chips do not contain any information that is not already visible on the passport.

The chips do contain biometric photographs for identification purposes, but the photographs have the same quality requirements as those on regular passports.

The biometric photographs have a dual purpose.

As well as providing the ability to check the passport-holder against his or her photograph at airport terminals worldwide, it can also be used to screen for fraudulent passport applications.

"We plan to introduce facial recognition systems to ensure that passport applicants are who they claim to be when they apply," Nash said. "As far as we know, we're still the only country that's doing that for every passport [issued]".

The facial recognition system allows DFAT to check an applicant's photograph against the entire photograph database in less than six seconds.

In fact, the facial recognition system has already caught out a number of fraudulent passport holders, including one man who had possessed five passports under five different fake names.

In early 2006, the British government began issuing RFID passports which will eventually incorporate fingerprints and other biometric data on the chips, although privacy activists are concerned over how data will be stored and handled.

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