Face Recognition and Iris Scans? The Fate for Australia.

"Fingerprint" by tuaulamac is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This critical web article explores whether the move towards biometric identification should be applied in an Australian context. Reflecting on its historical basis, particularly considering the implementation of biometric identification technology, Aadhaar in India, this article evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of a biometric identification system in Australia.

A look back in time for biometric identification

Biometric identification systems are a type of regulatory technology that automatically recognise and establish the authenticity of a person’s particular physiological or behavioural characteristics (Panknati, Bolle & Jain, 2000, p.46). The literature dates biometric identification to the 1870’s, where Alphonse Bertillon first explored possibilities for using measurements of human characteristics (Maguire, 2009, p.10).

From the early 1960’s, fingerprint and face recognition systems were being applied in relation to high-security access, personal security and financial transactions (Maguire, 2009). Continued development of biometric identification led to increased interest from governments and businesses in applying these technologies for automated personal identification and commercial purposes replacing traditional forms of identification considered to be less efficient (Panknati et al., 2000, p.46).

Introducing Aadhaar in India

File:Iris Scan - Biometric Data Collection - Aadhaar - Kolkata 2015-03-18 3653.JPG

“Aadhaar Iris Scan” by Biswarup Ganguly is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Biometric identification was first introduced in India through the ‘Kargil Review Committee Report’ in 2000, which recommended the issuing of ID cards for people in bordering towns as a way of preventing illegal immigration and criminal activities (Mathew, 2014, p.746). In 2009, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) initiated the roll out of Aadhaar Unique Identification Numbers (UID) with a card bearing the UID in India (Mathew, 2014). Aadhaar was envisioned as a way to identify socioeconomically marginalised groups and provide them with access to better support and welfare initiatives (Singh, 2019, p.2).

Consisting of a twelve-digit number, Aadhaar identifies an individual’s identity linking to their biometric and demographic information, providing them with access to various government benefits and services (Mathew, 2014, p.447). Each number relates directly to a set of information stored by the UIDAI in a central ID repository.

Biometric information captured by Aadhaar:

  • a photograph
  • iris scans
  • ten fingerprint records

Demographic information captured by Aadhaar:

  • date of birth
  • driver’s license
  • educational qualification
  • residential address
  • parent’s/guardian’s
  • spouse’s name & Aadhaar number (Mathew, 2014, p.447).


But… what about in Australia?

Increased movement between boarders, paired with heightened national security in the past two-decades has seen increased consideration of biometric technologies in Australia (Wilson, 2007). The concept of a national identification card was first proposed in 1980’s on the grounds of reducing tax evasion, and identity fraud; And in recent years been re-considered (Wilson, 2007, p.215). However, the Australian government’s considerations to implement a national biometric system has sparked debate over potential benefits and problems of biometric technologies.

According to the 2020 Identity Crime and Misuse in Australia Report by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), despite high levels of concern, many respondents indicated using biometric technologies in their everyday activities and almost 90% of respondents would agree with its use in operations to counter terrorism, in high-stake criminal investigations and for applications in identification documents, demonstrating an appetite for a biometric system (Pascu, 2020).

How could we benefit?

Biometric technologies have long been used as tools to combat against identity fraud and increase security of personal data (Liu, 2010, p.365). One considered advantage of biometric identification over traditional forms of personal security like passwords is that they are considered as more precise providing higher security and counters problems like identity fraud (Haghighat, Zonouz & Abdel-Mottaleb, 2013, p.440).

Highlighted in the current COVID-19 context, a Sydney Morning Herald article details the Australian government’s plans to improve online systems for government services using digital identification through facial recognition. Over 1.6 million people and 1.16 million businesses already use digital identification to access certain government services online (Harris, 2020).

Similar to the proposed benefits of Aadhaar in India, a national identity system that standardises the process of data collection and verification has allowed the government to better distribute support programs to citizens and support those in poverty (Jain, 2019). But is this really the case?

For Australians, digital identification has been proposed as a streamlined and more effective way of enabling businesses and individuals to access government welfare services and voting enrolment (Harris, 2020).

One of the main ways Australia has deployed biometric technologies, is in immigration and boarder control (Wilson, 2007, p.209). The use of biometrics in Australia’s e-passport system and the implementation of SmartGate in 2007, deploys facial recognition technology to validate a person’s identity matching it to their passport when entering the country (Newton, 2018, p.23). Facial recognition technologies are viewed as a form of identification requiring no physical contact or awareness by the individual and considered a less intrusive method of validating identity (Majekodunmi & Idahaba, 2011).

SmartGate has been praised as a more efficient, less intrusive and contactless way of processing travellers through immigration (Newtown, 2018, p.23). An ABC article details plans to upgrade SmartGate in the next few years with improved facial recognition, iris and fingerprint data – which could mean passports may no longer be required, improving wait times in the immigration process (Coyne, 2019).

Particularly advantageous in the current COVID-19 context, the video by CNA below shows the trialling of a fully contactless terminal in Changi International Airport, Singapore – removing the need for a passport altogether.


What are the concerns?

Despite these benefits, the 2020 AIC report highlighted that over 80% of Australians hold extreme concerns about privacy threats associated with biometric identification technology (Stilgherrian, 2020). Australians were most concerned with the risk of losing personal data, money or identity fraud through leaking of biometric information (Stilgherrian, 2020).

One of the greatest disadvantages of biometric technologies, stems from risks of data security leading to theft of identity and fraud (Liu, 2010). Central storage of data can be vulnerable to unauthorised access by third parties if the correct regulations are not in place (Weerakkody, 2004). The onus is placed on the government to ensure biometric systems and those responsible for data storage adequately protect the privacy of people’s biometric data. Additionally, the reactive nature of Australia’s legal system means that rapid progressions in biometric technologies could exceed the legal system’s ability to update legislation accordingly, creating issues regarding ongoing data protection (Cradduck & McCullagh, 2008).

This was evidenced in India, where a security lapse on an unprotected web system led to over 100,000 Aadhaar numbers leaked (Whittaker, 2019). Some argue that the implementation of Aadhaar is simply another way for authorities to expand their power and control, ignorant to the consequences that breach fundamental human rights (Jain, 2019).

“People travelling hundreds of kilometers to Aadhaar Enrolment Centre” by joegoauk73 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The implementation of an Australian ID system has the potential to exacerbate existing social divisions and harm vulnerable minority groups including indigenous communities (Wilson, 2007, p.216). As exemplified in India where although obtaining an Aadhaar card is voluntary, the government announced in 2018 that only citizens who could prove their identity through Aadhaar were eligible for certain services which saw bank accounts being frozen and young children turned away from medical care (Doshi, 2018).

Furthermore, the accuracy of the biometric systems like Aadhaar have been questioned with many reporting incidences of authentication failures and turned away from services owning to technology errors in verifying their identity (Singh, 2019). Even factors including varying illumination of facial features, cosmetics and aging are examples of the ways individual’s biometric information can change over time and in varying situations (Haghighat et al., 2013, p.440).


The decision for Australia

There are some clear advantages in favour of an Australian biometric identification system, including greater precision and security compared to traditional forms of verification (Haghighat et al., 2013). A national biometric system streamlines the government’s ability to deliver welfare services, voting enrolment and identification, increasing efficiency of accessing these services (Harris, 2020).

However, the Australian government needs implement measures and regulations necessary to preserve the integrity of biometric data and protect Australians against identity fraud (Cradduck & McCullagh, 2008). If not accompanied by improvements to welfare programs, considerations of cloud security and adequate infrastructure upgrades, there are notable concerns of a system like this becoming solely a means of data collection for the government rather than its intended purpose, leaving Australians vulnerable to privacy breaches of biometric data.

Word Count: 1428 (10% leeway applied)


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About Jessie Ng 2 Articles
Jessie is completing a Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies) at the University of Sydney, interested in exploring how internet transformations have influenced the way users interact, share and interpret content online.