The use of biometrics by airlines and airports (not to mention banks, tech firms and governments) is soaring.
International Air Transport Association President Gloria Guevara recently called it the “future of travel”, with 71 per cent of airlines and 77 per cent of airports currently investing in biometric programmes.
Recent years have seen big advances in facial recognition technology, meaning it’s more accessible and effective than ever before – promising numerous new conveniences and impressively futuristic systems, but also raising concerns over privacy and data protection.
‘Biometric’ refers to the analysis of biological data, which could apply to fingerprint matches, iris scans, voice recognition or other measurements of physical characteristics. However, it is facial recognition which is really taking off, and which you’re likely to start encountering more and more.
You’ve probably already used e-passport gates when entering a country – these match the picture in your passport against the face staring into the camera, and read the other information contained in it, such as your nationality. It usually takes between six and ten seconds to do this, and requires you to hold your passport into a scanner to obtain the information, sometimes failing to read it as you do (to the frustration of many a passenger).
New departure systems will work differently, theoretically allowing you to walk through check-in, bag-drop, security and aircraft boarding without showing a passport or boarding pass.
It works because a database already contains your picture, whether obtained through documents like visas, by submitting it online in advance, or via a booth at check-in. That database must be able to communicate with others, chiefly those that know which passengers should be on which flight, and those that snap pictures of passengers as they move through the airport checkpoints.
The picture is stored as a ‘template’ rather than an actual photograph, creating a kind of map using numerous points on a face. When the picture is taken at the airport, it creates another such template, and cross-references it with the flight database. If it hits the threshold for a match – 90 per cent, for example – the passenger is approved. The whole thing happens very quickly, usually in less than two seconds, and you barely have to glance at the camera for it to capture your image.
The US Department of Homeland Security says Customs and Border Protection is working toward implementation of biometric exit technology to cover more than 97 per cent of departing commercial air travellers within the next four years. The government sees it as a key way to “support the homeland security, defence, and justice missions”. For airlines, it’s a way to provide added convenience for passengers.
In Qatar, Hamad International is introducing an end-to-end biometric system, while Dubai International has been working with Emirates on a ‘smart tunnel’ that will allow passengers to pass through immigration checks in 15 seconds.