First seen in ThePaypers
The way in which we assert our identity when traveling internationally has been long established. The physical passport document remains at the heart of the current identity management process. However, the way that travellers prove who they are is in the process of undergoing some potentially transformational changes.
Many of us are familiar with the increasing use of biometric ePassport gates, whereby a traveller’s face is imaged and then compared with the image stored electronically on the passport chip, replacing the need for a manual inspection.
Another form of this technology is now being deployed by the US Customs and Border Protection agency.
The Traveler Verification Service allows a passenger’s face to be compared with a gallery of verified facial images. These have typically been collected as part of a traveller’s entry into the US, or for a US citizen when they applied for their passport. The service enables a check to be carried out almost instantaneously, not only that the passenger in question is the rightful owner of a current and verified passport, but also their right to travel, such as a valid visa, and valid boarding information provided by the airline.
The check takes under a second, has a very high accuracy rate, and has enabled boarding times for large planes to be cut by 30-50%. The traveller can keep their passport in their pocket (which surprises many the first time they experience it). The check is also highly secure, more so than visual inspections.
In airports around the world, a range of common identity approaches are emerging. These initiatives provide a way to ease the traveller’s entire journey through the airport, from arrival at the airport to their take-off. They provide a more seamless and ‘hands-in-pocket’ experience, reducing the need for additional visual checks of their identity documents to be carried out.
At Aruba airport, in the south Caribbean, the Happy Flow initiative enables a traveller to show their passport just once, at check-in, where they are enrolled onto the local system. Similar schemes are also being tested in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, Dubai and Singapore’s Changi airport.
In each case, the traveller’s biographic and biometric information is connected on the system via the initial check-in. This enables a traveller to move more seamlessly through the airport, using biometric facial imaging to track the individual at various points in their journey – in effect their face has become their identity ‘token’.
But what is pushing this innovation, and why now?
The use of biometrics systems to identify individuals quickly, and from amongst a large cohort, has in truth only recently become achievable due to the level of accuracy needed for immigration control.
Existing passport checks are onerous, take a great deal of time to carry out, and are a major source of frustration for passengers. Emerging identity techniques on the other hand are much more traveller-centric. They are designed to enable a more convenient and faster process, to remove friction and improve experience. All-in-all, a traveller should suffer fewer delays and have to show their travel documents less often, if at all.
The search for increased efficiency and speed is a major driver, for both airlines and airports. The processing of travellers through border controls, and the checking of documents again immediately before boarding the plane are both major causes of delay, and constrain an airport’s capacity. If these processes are made faster, the air industry will be better able to meet the projected growth in air travel which is expected to double by 2030; more efficient passenger processing can ease congestion and raise capacity in existing travel infrastructure.
Finally, biometric checks are more accurate, less prone to manipulation or document fraud, and provide a more accurate record of who travels in and out of a country. Countries around the world are seeking to strengthen their border controls, and these innovative identity systems, as well as being faster and more convenient for passengers, are also valuable for governments too.
The greater challenge to come lies in knitting these schemes together. Most are focused on the departure process; applying the same type of solutions to passenger arrivals and providing interoperability between schemes are both harder nuts to crack.
That these pockets of innovation are not being joined up is a reflection of the current rules and requirements for identifying travellers. The rules are set by individual governments, with physical checking of the passport document itself the main (and often mandatory) proof of identity, with little regard to new forms of identity checking such as biometrics.
The obvious next step to unlock the true benefits of these approaches, both to travellers and the industry alike, is for airlines and national governments to agree future rules and arrangements multi-nationally. The air travel industry body IATA is doing what it can to encourage a more global conversation through its One ID initiative, but it really needs governments to buy into the industry’s future vision, and to look beyond traditional identity checks.
The travel industry alone cannot bring about the step-change that new identity solutions could unlock. Until governments engage in a more meaningful way, travellers had better keep their passport and boarding card close at hand.
By Ewan Willars, Senior Associate, Innovate Identity