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IT Last modified on July 6, 2017

Face time

Is the use of biometric technology about to take off at US airports? Gemalto’s SVP of government programmes, Neville Pattinson, considers some options.

The idea of using biometrics in airports certainly isn’t a new one, even in the US, which lags behind many of its international neighbours.

Indeed, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been incorporating biometrics in its US-VISIT program since it was introduced way back in 2006-07. So why haven’t more of the nation’s airports broadly adopted and benefitted from biometrics as a means of moving people along in their kerb-to-flight travel experience?

You’ve no doubt witnessed fingerprint scans used in various capacities by the federal government for nearly two decades now. Just to give you an idea of fingerprint scans’ pervasiveness, the FBI holds a database of roughly 88 million fingerprints and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has logged over 200 million.

Although they are considered biometrics and CBP has installed some kiosks that make fingerprints a valid form of ID for citizens coming back into the country, there are more comprehensive, infallible forms of biometric scans that have the added benefit of not slowing things down so drastically.

Facial biometric recognition, for example, can identify individuals of interest in a rapid and unobtrusive way. In essentially real time, a camera can take a photo or video of a face and an automated biometric facial matching identification system (ABIS) can compare and match the live image to a passport or driver’s license picture (captured at enrollment) to verify that person is the right one to be holding that exact document.

The entire process can be completed locally between the traveller standing in front of the camera at a kiosk or agent and the digital image contained by a passport or ID card.

That’s the level of biometric technology and efficiency that holds substantial promise in keeping airport travellers moving freely and securely.

There is clearly much to be gained from biometric technology, yet here in the US we cannot seem to decide whether the public or private sector should take the lead on committing the financial investment and upfront work necessary to bring adequate biometrics to US airports.

Things maybe about to change though as there’s finally significant government pressure from CBP to use facial recognition technology for crossing borders, and for the first time it has announced the intention to roll out implementations for foreign nationals departing the US.

The move may create the opportunity for airlines to become early adopters of the technology, which would help increase the value of their respective loyalty programmes by linking biometrics to frequent flyer accounts.

Additional incentives come in the form of replacing error-prone human verification of IDs and boarding docs at the check-in counter or gate.

Instead of assuming airline and airport employees will be able to judge, recognise and verify the authenticity of any one of the more than 3,000 ID documents used in the US, airlines can be assured that the people (and luggage) travelling, exiting or entering the country are indeed the ones who should be doing so.

The ability to match a traveller’s face with their government-issued ID document’s photo could even give airlines and airports a mechanism to one day automate boarding at domestic departures gates, eradicating the need to check boarding passes.

Domestic travellers’ faces would simply become their ‘boarding passes’ as they pass through the airport.

No matter how obvious it seems for biometrics to be an integral part of every trip to a US airport, we should realistically expect to see biometrics playing a meaningful role in security and ID verification checks in three to five years’ time.

The technology is ready for primetime and the business case has been recently clarified, but there are manufacturing and supply chain considerations, partnerships to establish and technical integration requirements with back-end systems that all take substantial time to work out.

While there are several reasons behind the US lagging in the biometrics marathon, thank goodness that a more convenient, secure future airport experience isn’t far off.

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