Your face is your boarding pass

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Not long ago biometric technology was something of sci-fi movies and novels. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Captain Kirk gains access to top secret files with a retinal scan used for verifying his identity. Today, biometrics are part of everyday life. We use this technology constantly to unlock our mobile devices multiple times a day. The biometric sensors embedded in our devices protect our data and enable us to access our bank accounts and make payments with the touch of a finger, and even by looking into the built-in camera.

The technology is complex, but its use couldn’t be simpler. A seamless user experience is driving the adoption of biometrics as a way of confirming identity. First, fingerprint recognition lets us unlock our phones simply by resting a finger on a button. And nowadays, the latest generation of smartphones can see our faces and authenticate us thanks to facial recognition. Biometrics allow a natural interaction with our devices, and more conveniently than remembering and entering a four or six-digit pin code.

Facial recognition to ease boarding

Identity checks and authentication are the most popular application of biometrics. Travel, which requires several identity checks during a journey, will greatly benefit from the development of biometrics. At the airport, for example, we must show our IDs and passports at the check-in desk, at passport control and at the gate before boarding. Thanks to the use of biometrics, passengers could go through these checkpoints by just showing their faces instead of a passport or a boarding pass.

According to a study by aviation technology specialist SITA, 63% of airports and 43% of airlines plan to invest in biometric ID management solutions in the next three years.  Airlines expect to make boarding easier and quicker for passengers.

A number of airlines are carrying out facial recognition trials to ease check-in and boarding. Last year, Finnair and airport operator Finavia trailed the technology at Helsinki airport. To board via facial recognition, the customer needed to upload their pictures on to a face recognition system via a mobile app. This year Lufthansa began a pilot project at Los Angeles airport utilizing self-boarding gates with facial recognition cameras that capture passenger’s facial images as they approach the device. The image is securely sent to the US Customs and Border Protection database for real-time matching and verification. After a successful match, taking just a few seconds, the system recognizes the passenger and lets them through to board. Thanks to this system, passengers do not have to show a boarding pass or a passport at the gate.

Similarly, facial recognition can also make the long lines at customs and passport control a thing of the past. Biometrics are now in use at nine US international airports. Most recently, the Miami International Airport implemented a wholly biometric facial recognition passport screening. The system allows screening of as many as 10 passengers per minute to meet the challenge of balancing increasing traveler volumes and security.

Privacy concerns

Surveys and studies report that 57% of passengers would definitely use biometrics, instead of a passport or boarding pass, for identification across the journey. The technology is convenient, so travelers are willing to embrace it. However, its expansion is also raising legal questions and privacy concerns. Are airports, airlines and authorities allowed to collect biometric data?

To respond to privacy concerns, the biometric ID management system tested at Helsinki airport turned facial images into untraceable bio-metric IDs. Other systems delete data as soon as the passenger boards the plane.

Despite these concerns, the run for the ‘digital airport’ is on. Traveling without carrying any travel documents could be a reality very soon.