NSW transport minister floats facial recognition as Opal alternative

Despite commuters being highly satisfied with Opal cards, according to agency's own figures

New South Wales transport minister Andrew Constance has revealed plans to roll out facial recognition technology across the transport network as an alternative to Opal cards.

"In the transport space we'll use facial recognition technology to scan customers who've 'opted in' and linked their Opal account," Constance said in a speech at the Sydney Institute on Tuesday night.

"No more gate barriers. Just a smooth journey," he said.

The minister said he expected commuters to use "frictionless transport payments" in the "not too distant future” and compared the capability to Amazon’s Go stores where shoppers simply fill their basket, walk out of the store, and then charged.

Constance also floated the possibility of using “biometric recognition” where people can be identified using other physical and movement markers.

"Digital identity verification will eventually be integrated with biometric recognition," he said.

"This will read someone's face, retina, breath, gait or voice to enable next level authorisation and access. Think truly contactless payments - entry to buildings, onto planes, at banks and hotels."

The capability could also be used to detect if someone on a train or bus was ill, Constance claimed.

Sydney’s Opal card system is operated by Cubic Transportation – which also operates Queensland’s Go Card system for TransLink and London’s Oyster card system.

In 2017 it was revealed Cubic was running proof of concept trials of palm vein scanning and facial recognition in its London lab. The company claimed the biometric ‘gateless gateline prototype system’ could support a “doubled rate of passenger throughput”.

The system is similar to current airport biometric passport readers, and to register, passengers have to have a 3D headshot captured in booths supplied by the company.

Such systems have been balked at by privacy groups worldwide. The Australian Privacy Foundation has previously called such systems “a danger to civil rights and privacy”.

There is no evidence that the Opal card turnstiles cause delays to the network, or are a pain point for commuters.

More than nine in 10 commuters were satisfied with the ease of using an Opal card on the train network, according to Transport for NSW’s latest customer satisfaction survey. Some 51 per cent were ‘very satisfied’ according to the survey published last month.

Satisfaction with the Opal card was even higher when considering buses (96 per cent of commuters were satisfied, 61 per cent very satisfied) and ferries (96 per cent satisfied, 73 per cent very much so).

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