Public servants using a massive electronic watch list to stop war criminals and visa fraudsters coming to Australia still cannot use a biometric data such as fingerprints and facial images even after millions of dollars was given to their department to make it happen.

The department's attempt to set up a steering committee to improve the watch list failed because of a lack of interest and management oversight, a fresh audit report says.

Department of Immigration and Border Protection staff are still being forced to identify visa applicants using biographical sources which have “a varying degree of reliability”.

It said $83 million for a biometric watch list and other initiatives using the same data was handed to the department between 2004 and 2010.

The revelation comes as the Coalition touts the success of Operation Sovereign Borders after more than 100 days have passed without an asylum seeker boat arriving.

The wealth of biometric information Australia has collected from detainees and overseas visa applicants since 2006 would give greater certainty to staff assessing a rising number of applications and fraudsters armed with better technology.

Bureaucrats are doing just over 30 million traveller checks a year now and will need to deal 50 million by 2020.

The Australian National Audit Office's (ANAO) report stopped short of recommending the inclusion of biometric testing in the watch list.

It did say biometrics would enhance the system and noted the department has been looking into the use of biometrics for at least 15 years.

The same report found large improvements in the watch list, particularly the overall accuracy of data.

But there were other weaknesses.

Only two out of five recommendations from a 2008 audit were implemented as of last year, even though ANAO and a parliamentary committee had been told the recommendations were substantially completed.

“More focused senior management oversight could have been directed to the implementation of the recommendations," the report said.

People and documents on the list, known as the central movement alert list (CMAL), remain for as long as 120 years but are not subject to systematic reviews to upgrade data deficiencies which might unnecessarily inconvenience travellers.

The latest audit report, completed late February, also found the department still did not collect information showing where the watch list had been used in visa and citizenship decisions.