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IDme: Immigration New Zealand getting real on identity

Line of Defence, Summer 2016/17

New identity management system IDme is the kick-start of a biometrics push for INZ. Harnessing biometric data to minimise the threat posed to our borders by identity fraud is an important move, but balancing security with privacy and service concerns will be key.


Immigration New Zealand’s new identity management system, part of INZ’s ‘Vision 2015’ program, rolled out over the weekend of 28-29 May. Known as IDme (Identity Management Engine), the system will enable INZ to confirm a person’s identity using biometric data, constituting a powerful new weapon against identity fraud by visa applicants.

“IDme is a major step change in our ability to protect against identity fraud by non-New Zealanders,” said immigration minister Mr Woodhouse upon the launch of the new system. “It gives greater assurance that the visa system detects and prevents identity fraud.”

“Accessible and reliable identity information, underpinned by biometrics, will provide a solid base for detecting potential identity fraud before people enter New Zealand, and will also help detect non-compliant people already in New Zealand,” Vision 2015’s Director, Catriona McKay, told Line of Defence. “IDme provides INZ with enhanced capability to be the authoritative source of identity information for all non-New Zealanders.”

According to McKay, the system will give INZ identity assurance parity with international partners, “strengthening international trust and confidence in the integrity of the immigration system and border.” With New Zealand’s five-eyes partners and Europe’s Schengen Agreement countries already boasting well-developed biometrics programs, INZ has some catching-up to do.

As part of the project, INZ gains a new in-house fingerprint capability (previously provided by NZ Police) and a new facial image matching capability online and at the border secondary line. Facial image matching against personal data already held by INZ, currently available only in relation to persons from five countries, is set to be rolled out to all clients, and fingerprints captured and matched for higher risk clients.

“At the moment facial images stored by INZ will not be accessed and compared in real time by other border systems,” stated McKay. “However, we are currently exploring options to take biometric information captured in border systems such as SmartGate and matching that information against INZ holdings.”


The road to universal biometric enrolment

There is also a separate biometric enrolment project underway, with the small existing biometric enrolment caseload of asylum seekers and protection applicants to be expanded. However, IDme’s introduction, according to McKay, “does not change the proportion of visa applicants that have their biometric data collected in the short term.”

“INZ has been obtaining facial images from practically all visa applicants for some years and has also been obtaining fingerprints from people formally interviewed at the border and as part of our Refugee programme,” she stated. Nevertheless, airports and refugee missions will receive new equipment to improve the collection of fingerprints and enable the in-person capture of a facial image.

In the current border security setting, identity is front and centre in relation to the management of visa applications, and IDme’s person-centric biometrics-based identity model will supersede INZ’s traditional reliance on more readily falsifiable biographic information.

But that’s just the start. According to McKay, an identity strategy with the long term goal of “full in-person biometric enrolment (face and fingerprint) from all visa required customers seeking entry to New Zealand” has been approved.

Requiring biometric enrolment from all visa applicants is something that many of New Zealand’s international partners currently do, however, it is a significant change for INZ. For this reason, says McKay, INZ will be taking a phased approach. “This would look at selecting candidates for full biometric enrolment on a risk-basis, and gradually introduce the improved procedures over a period of time.”


The need for balance

A slow and steady approach makes sense. In addition to the privacy concerns that government biometric collection and associated data sharing agreements raise, there are also debates around the method and frequency of collection. Perceived by some as intrusive, biometric collection is seen by most visa applicants as just downright inconvenient.

Amid IDme’s arrival has been a series of customer-focused changes in INZ known collectively as Immigration ONLINE. A web-based portal now allows people to apply for visas online, with third party partners, such as immigration advisers and lawyers, also able to apply online on behalf of their clients. Passport-free applications and label-less visas (eVisas) have also been extended to many countries. For these applicants that means no more queuing up at an NZ embassy for a visa.

So, on the one hand, online applications that require neither physical passports nor visa labels enable visa applicants to submit an application from virtually anywhere, making what was a traditionally paper-based process far more convenient. Yet on the other hand, biometric enrolment requires that a visa applicant front up in-person to an immigration office to have their finger and facial data collected, thus imposing a new level of inconvenience.

It’s a predicament that Australia’s immigration department faced late last year when they rolled out a biometric enrolment requirement to non-NZ citizens in New Zealand applying for visas to Australia. All of a sudden, applicants living in far-flung parts of the country who had previously couriered their applications or applied online were now having to make a trip into Australian Visa Application Centres (VACs) in Auckland or Queenstown to get photographed and finger printed.

Just last month – and to coincide with the start of direct Wellington-Canberra flights – VAC operator TT Services went a long way to solving the predicament with the commencement of weekly mobile – or ‘pop-up’ – centres in Wellington and Christchurch. Proving popular, TT Services’ Wellington centre (operating out of the Willis Wellington Hotel) has been booked out on most of its three days of operation per week.

Such innovative ‘taking it to the customer’ approaches to biometric collection go some way to making up ground on the service front, at least until – sometime well into the future – governments become comfortable with applicants collecting their own biometrics via smartphone. Until then, a slow and steady approach will help INZ to manage a staged implementation that can potentially benefit from rapidly evolving biometric capture technologies and service offerings.


More or less on track

Despite early setback, the IDme project appears to be drawing towards successful completion by main supplier Datacom.

According to a November 2015 Major Projects Performance Information Release published by the Treasury, “Datacom overlooked some of MBIE’s requirements when they quoted for development of identity management software. The programme has agreed to a change in schedule to enable Datacom sufficient time to perform the unanticipated extra development work.”

“The programme has retained the right to call on contractual remedies with Datacom to mitigate the risk, but advise that good progress has been made, with an agreement expected by late August 2015,” the report continued.

“This has been a long and complex project and INZ and Datacom have worked together to build a quality product and achieve a successful outcome,” Catriona Mc Kay told Line of Defence. Persistence has paid off.

IDme is an important step for INZ, and along with Customs’ hugely successful SmartGate system there is every likelihood it will eventually form an integral part of a complete biometrics-based identity management ecosystem that will make New Zealand’s borders among the most secure in the world.

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