Inside Customs' technology vision for travel

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Inside Customs' technology vision for travel

Big data to speed up airport experience.

Australians travelling internationally will soon be able to bypass the usual checks, forms and stamps that impede their way out of a terminal, under a new IT roadmap released by Customs.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service’s vision for the future of travel is based around a "seamless" travel experience backed up by technology.

In their first interview since taking up new roles at the agency, Customs CIO Rachel Noble and CTO Randall Brugeaud told iTnews the roadmap relied on efforts to integrate IT right across the agency and make better use of big data analytics.

“Our vision is that the future experience of an international traveller will be very similar to that of a domestic traveller today. They will land at an airport, pick up their bags and leave,” Brugeaud said.

Being able to pin-point a suspicious arrival from airport crowds without the need for queues at Customs desks will allow the agency to remove many of the manual processes slowing down the passenger journey, Noble said.

“It’s about allowing us to connect the dots, and as Nate Silver says, finding the signal in the noise,” she said.

“Say, for example, passenger X is coming in across the border and we aren’t too concerned about him. If we are able to connect that information to incoming cargo in the same name, which turns out to be holding 4kg of drugs, all of a sudden we know he is a person of interest.”

Identification will one day be assisted by the kind of CCTV-based facial recognition technology used to identify the Boston Marathon bombers, allowing Customs officers to pick suspicious arrivals out of a crowd and “leave everyone else alone”.

Another secret to touch-free travel is giving passengers the power to complete many of the usual airport processes before they even enter the terminal, such as filling out a departure card online or via a mobile app, and searching a database to find out what they can and cannot carry into Australia.

“Say you have picked up something in a market in Bali, and you’re wondering whether you can bring it back into Australia. You will be able to type that term into our search and receive advice then and there,” Noble said.

“This is information that is already publically available but only if you’re prepared to sit down and read the 1901 Customs Act while on holiday.”

The specific changes Customs will have to make to its IT architecture in order to realise these improvements are still being nutted out by the team.

“What we’re not doing right now is defining our target technical state. At this stage we are defining the business problems we are trying to solve," Brugeaud said.

“From the point of view of big data analytics we do know that we are going to need an integrated view of the information that we hold, either physically or logically joined. Exactly what that platform will look like is something we will decide in the future."

The technology-enabled transformation makes up a key pillar of the Customs Blueprint for Reform (pdf) - a “root and branch” overhaul of an agency which has been shown to be vulnerable to corruption and infiltration by criminal interests.

A number of Customs officers have been arrested in the past 12 months on suspicion of conspiring to allow drugs through Sydney Airport.

Releasing the Blueprint earlier this month Customs CEO Michael Pezzullo described it as a “milestone in the Service’s reform journey, setting out our vision for the future which is to protect Australia’s borders and foster lawful trade and travel.”

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