Smile for the camera: How biometrics are changing border crossing

Spurred by COVID-19 and an urge to restore global mobility, contactless biometric immigration channels are emerging as the gold standard for border control.

You’re likely used to glancing at a camera to unlock your phone, pay for coffee or access banking apps. But what if you could do the same at check-in, immigration and boarding? That reality is not far off.

Before COVID-19 devastated the travel industry, automated borders were already on the rise. This shift has been driven in part by necessity: The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts air passenger traffic doubling over the next 20 years, and airports must become more efficient to handle the demand.

In preparation for the growing demand, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) launched the “Safe & Seamless Traveller Journey Programme” in 2018, which promotes “seamless” end-to-end journeys for both air and non-air travel. In this context, seamless refers to biometric verification – iris scans, fingerprints and facial recognition – so travelers don’t need to present boarding passes or passports at multiple checkpoints.

The call for innovation has only grown louder during the pandemic. For many airlines, airports and governments alike, biometrics offer an obvious mechanism to improve the travel experience and enhance security at the same time.

“The aviation sector has embraced the use of biometrics to make travel safer, offer a better experience, reduce friction points in the traveler journey, and cut costs,” says Helena Bononi, Commercial Vice President at the WTCC. “Significant technological advances in digital identities continue to enter the marketplace and can help overcome the COVID-19 crisis.”

Of course, it’s also about allocating security resources more effectively. Pre-pandemic, many immigration systems – such as Global Entry in the US, EasyPass in Germany, and SmartGates in Australia – had already implemented biometrics to “leverage risk-based segmentation”, enabling immigration to focus their energy on higher-risk travelers, adds Bononi.

Taking it a step further, Dubai International Airport recently rolled out a contactless ‘smart tunnel’ system that uses a mix of facial and iris recognition technology. Essentially, registered passengers can check-in, complete immigration and board their flights with a stroll through the tunnel. If a traveler is low-risk, they’ll get the green light to continue on their journey.

While Singapore’s Changi Airport had previously used fingerprints as the primary mode of identification at immigration clearance, new facilities unveiled in 2020 now use facial and iris recognition. The move is part of broader pandemic precautions to minimize surface contact, human-to-human interaction and improve safety throughout the airport.

And as more countries embrace “vaccine passports”, Armand Arton, the founder and president of Arton Capital, believes the industry will adopt emerging technologies to further improve the border-crossing experience.

“The digitization trend is in motion and there’s no going back now. Soon, you won’t even need to take your passport out of your bag,” says Arton. “In general, governments and immigration now require access to your health information, which was not required before COVID. It’s comparable to what September 11 did in terms of security sharing, but with health information.”

But as border technology becomes more advanced, how do travelers know that their personal information is being handled securely and responsibly? Bononi acknowledges that governments will need to create international agreements on how data is authenticated, verified and stored at both ends of a journey. “Collaboration between the public and private sector will be critical to driving innovation and adoption,” she adds.

To this end, the International Civil Aviation Organization released the first Digital Travel Credential (DTC) standard in November 2020 – bringing digital identity credentials a step closer to reality. “This presents an opportunity to accelerate digital travel identity using a global standard,” says Bononi.

Restoring international mobility to pre-pandemic levels will be crucial to global economic recovery, and seamless travel is undoubtedly an important part of the puzzle. Just remember to smile for the camera.

Have you read the 2021 Passport Index Q1 Report? 

2020 was the year of lost travel plans. Prompting many to think that 2021 would be the year that makes up for it. But after diligent analysis of data collected from Passport Index throughout the start of 2021— the reality of global mobility paints a different picture. The 2021 Passport Index Q1 Report reveals which countries remained at the top of the ranks and which slipped far below, as well as what to expect moving forward.

Find the full report, here.

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