How biometric data is catching drug traffickers and pedophiles at the border

International intelligence agencies analysing the bone structures of people's faces are helping our authorities detect record amounts of fraud at the New Zealand border. 

It's known as biometrics, and involves the gathering and sharing of images of people's faces, and in some cases, sets of fingerprints. 

Immigration NZ currently holds 5.7 million images of people's faces. Since new new facial matching technology was introduced in 2016, there's been a big increase in fraud being picked up by immigration officers. 

And data released to Newshub shows people travelling here from China and Samoa feature most commonly in confirmed or suspected cases of fraud. 

Around 4.1 million people visited New Zealand last year, and amid increasing visitor numbers, there's increased need to remain vigilant. In a tiny, inconspicuous room at international arrivals, a team scrutinises traveller information. But there's more to it than just checking the authenticity of passports. 

"What we've done is we've picked up a rock and we're seeing all the things that are squirming underneath it, so if it's done anything, it's actually exposed more fraud," said Kevin Browne, lead technical specialist. 

Fingerprints are just part of the picture. Photo credit: Newshub.

While e-gates capture some biometric data, it's in this room where suspect passengers come under international scrutiny. 

"This system takes it one step further because we're doing both your face, your fingerprints and then it's being sent off to our partners overseas," said border officer James Swan.

Those partners are part of 'Migration Five', an agreement between the Five Eyes countries to share immigration data. The idea is that other countries may pick up undeclared convictions, anomalies in travel documents or false names. 

"We get responses back from the vast majority of the Five Eye countries within minutes," said Browne.

"To be able to do that at the border in real time in a matter of two or three minutes, a check that used to take weeks, is a huge leap forward," said Jacqui Ellis, general manager intelligence, data and insights.

It's helping to identify high-profile foreign criminals, like drug traffickers and pedophiles. 

"We've managed to identify a serious child sex offender  who was convicted against offending against minors in his home country," said Ellis. "He had a number of identities."

Since 2016, when advanced sharing of biometric data began, there's been a sharp rise in fraud or potential fraud. Eleven cases were recorded in 2016; that jumped sevenfold to 79 in 2017, and 106 incidents were noted in 2018.

There were 73 in the year to September last year.

The system currently holds 5.7 million images of people's faces and 33,000 sets of fingerprints, and since the introduction of this technology, there's been a surge in the amount of fraud being picked up, particularly by travellers from China and Samoa. 

The high fraud rate out of China is put down to the high number of visitors from there.  Part of problem out of Samoa is due to name changes - for example when a person adopts a chiefly title that's added to travel documents, effectively giving someone a dual identity. 

But there are also clear cases of fraud.

"Cases of transnational organised crime groups who have been about the business of producing false identities," said Ellis.

But human rights lawyer Michael Bott warns with so much data being held and potentially shared with other nations there are risks. 

"The more you use it, the more scope there is for error and of course without proper privacy protocols in place first, then you've got problems in terms of the potential for misuse or abuse," said Bott.

Immigration confirmed it has investigated four incidents with its system -  but says they didn't involve a privacy breach. 

"It's absolutely critical that we can hold information like this to keep New Zealand safe," said Ellis.

Immigration says biometric information is held securely - photos and fingerprints are held by authorities here for at least 50 years before being destroyed.