Half-baked cat fight

September 19, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

flying-cat-fight.jpg image by dankfern

Dear reader..imagine my shock, horror, FEEEEAAAR even when confronted with……

Well, let me take a step back. I had to shoot across the Tasman for a few days last week to visit my (literally) last remaining relative on the planet. My elderly uncle, who is in his 80s. Now, I realise this makes me seem incredibly ancient if you think about it – my last remaining next-of-kin who is in his 80s. But….I was born to an older mother and father and my nearest cousin is 18 years older than me. This might help you to visualise me as less than 80 years old (I hope).

I digress. So…I had to apply for a new NZ passport as the old one was just about to expire. Prior to 2005, the writing on the front of the passport (which I think was in silver) would completely rub off. When I handed in my old passport, the consulate people here in Sydney laughed because literally nothing was left on that passport cover to say what country I belonged to. But now I’m the owner of a very shiny new passport with gold writing on the cover. I was NOT happy to see that it is an E-passport with the dreaded micro chip. I searched for secretive ways to get rid of the chip but to no avail.

Regular ThinkingShift readers will know that I am often hauled aside at immigration for bomb-testing. So I was poised, ready, waiting. But this time, something more exciting happened to me. I was going through passport control, outward bound to NZ, when…my shiny new passport was confiscated and I was hauled off for questioning. No explanation. Just “come over here please and wait here”.

Had my many posts about biometrics and surveillance finally caught up with me I wondered? (I recently declined an invite to China because I thought my posts on China might get me hauled off). I sat like a young school kid outside the mirror-walled office, just behind passport control.  I had visions of ASIO types behind that mirrored window sussing me out – did I look nervous, suspicious?

After about 5 mins, a dude walked out and handed me my passport and said “have a nice flight”. What??? No grilling? No good cop/bad cop routine? I was disappointed. I asked what’s up? All he’d say was “your passport caused a red flag to go up on our system, but it’s fine now”.

What the? What does this mean? I scurried through the dreaded x-ray stuff and off I flew to NZ.  I returned a few days later….oblivious to changes at Sydney airport.

Whilst waiting in the passport control queue, a female official came up to me and said I could use the SmartGate line and sail through. Smart idea I thought; beat the queue. Dumb ass move on my part because… you scan your E-passport in a machine and then….you go off to…..the facial recognition technology area…and have your face scanned by these dreaded looking machines. I practically hyper-ventilated.

Despite the early hour of the morning and my foggy brain, I scanned for legal signs to tell me my rights. Typical. No signs. In the absence of these, I said to the grim looking woman “I decline to undergo facial recognition. Where are the signs to tell me what I can or can’t do?”.

I thought she was about to drop dead – either from laughter or shock at my hissy fit. After all, a few sheep incoming passengers were lining up for the facial business, so what’s my problem?  She barked: “well then join that long queue over there and wait your turn”.

Fine with me. Off I trotted. The irony is that I beat the facial recognition suckers to the passport control desk (seems the technology was still asleep in the early hours of the morning). And then my half-baked cat fight went something like this:

Passport control dude (with no smile): “You have an NZ E-passport. Why didn’t you go through the SmartGate?” (I’m thinking: unfortunately, Smart Gate is nowhere near as kick-ass exciting as Star Gate, otherwise I would have gone through it!).

Me: “I didn’t see any sign that said it was compulsory, so I prefer to join this queue”.

Dude: “Well, you have an E-passport”.

Me: silence (declining to state the obvious – duh!)

Dude: “Are you declining facial recognition?”.

Me: “Yes. Seems that it’s not compulsory, so until it is, I don’t wish to have it”.

Dude (with a slight smirk) “Do you have something to hide?” (and proceeds to look more closely at my passport).

Me: “Not at all. I just don’t like the intrusiveness of it and I don’t think the technology is foolproof enough yet” (dumb ass move on my part as I got a mini-lecture on the wonders and accuracy of facial recognition software).

Me: “Well, if it’s not compulsory, then I’d rather not have it. Seems you are using the SmartGate “beat the immigration queue” concept as a way to trap people into having facial recognition. Where are the signs and announcement about what is scanned; why it is scanned; and in what databases the scans are held; and who has access to them?”.

Dude: glare….raised eyebrows….narrowing of eyes.

Me:  return glare but realising I might now get myself hauled off.

Dude: “have a nice day” and hands over my passport.

Me: “you too”, grabbing passport and scurrying off faster than a cheetah running over the African landscape, chasing prey.

Soooooo….I have obviously missed any news about facial recognition technology being introduced to Sydney airport! I do remember something about facial recognition trials some years back but I thought that had bitten the dust. I decided to do a spot of research and found an announcement about SmartGate in a dreary Ministerial press release in July 2009. It’s being rather cleverly described as a “self-processing option for travellers” and a “long-term business solution” (what the?).

It says that SmartGate is proving popular. Yes…well…there were hundreds of people in the loooooooong queues for passport control and about 10 at the SmartGate. Not sure that’s too popular. The couple ahead of me (in their 20s) were clutching NZ E-passports. They were glancing at SmartGate. They turned to me and asked what it was.

Me: “That’s SmartGate. You put the photo page of your E-passport in that machine over there. Then you go get facial recognition”.

Young dude: “What? They scan your face? No way in hell”.

Young girl: “You gotta be kidding. I’m not having that”.

Ah, so Gen Y clearly are very astute and they renewed my belief that not all of us are sheep about to meekly walk into surveillance hell. But I’m wondering when SmartGate will become CompulsoryGate.

Entry filed under: Airport security, Australia, Biometric identification, Rant.

Depression-era photography Homage to weeping willows

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Baoman  |  September 22, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Hong Kong has some of the most strigent personal privacy legislation outside of the EU. I’m always surprised that identity control systems are such high-temperture topics in some places but in other places they cause little comment or concern. There is a cultural component mixed with a basic mis-trust of technology. For example; Switzerland requires everyone to carry an identity card and register with the local commune with 15 days of taking up residence and Japan has similar requirements. No one is more worried about privacy then the Swiss and the Japanese in my experience.

    Hong Kong issued 6.5 million biometric identify cards over a 5 year period that ended a few years back. We had our fingerprints encoded so we can go thru passport control gates without facial recognition. There was no option to opt-out except to give up your HK identiy card which very few sane people would do – the option is to either live in China or worst yet somewhere in the commonwealth or the USA. As far as I remember there was very little concern beyond ensuring that the data was protected and safe. A few people were worried about someone cutting off fingers to get through the gates with a stolen id card but apparently it needs to be attached to a beating heart. I wonder how that is done?


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