The Stack Archive

Air travel: Why cloud-based biometrics must overtake the passport

Fri 15 Jul 2016

Biometric travel

Global. Borderless. Connected. These are a few of the buzzwords of the modern age that make it sound like the world is getting smaller as technological advances reduce the burden of geographic barriers. For the most part, this is true; it’s almost too easy to point to examples of digital technology making the world flatter than ever before.

The flipside to that is, of course, that more people are traveling more often – some 50,000 commercial routes carrying more than 3.3 billion passengers worldwide – and all of these passengers should need to prove their identity before setting foot on an aircraft.

Now we have a case where technological advances are required not to supplant geographic hurdles, but rather to process the ever-growing number of travelers who venture forth into a world where security has never been tighter and the risk of misidentifying a passenger has never been more consequential. Given this potentially overwhelming logistical challenge for security checkpoint agents and customs officials, we’re seeing a growing interest among travel authorities in one particular class of technology: biometrics.

Getting onboard with biometrics

Let’s say you’re a business person. Check. With a spotless criminal background. Check. In a role that requires frequent domestic air travel. Check. Congratulations! You may be eligible for an opt-in trusted traveler program, such as TSA Precheck in the United States. To enroll, you’ll need to have a face-to-face meeting with TSA officials who will ask numerous questions, collect government-issued ID information such as a driver’s license, and finally, take your fingerprints. Your ID and fingerprint information will be stored in a secure cloud, which will be accessed the next time you go through airport security.

tsaBy merging biometrics with a claimed identity document such as a government-backed ID, we now have a system that enables you to be on your way quickly and with little chance of error, thanks to the very individualized nature of your fingerprints; even if an ID is forged, biometric data is not so easily duplicated.

Speed, efficiency, accuracy. One less thing for travelers to concern themselves with and one more layer of assurance for the airlines that passengers are not falsifying their identities with possibly malicious intent.

What about international travel? The situation becomes more complicated when national borders are crossed, but at the heart of the matter, the need to verify traveler identity remains the same. The main difference is that, when traveling abroad, eligibility to enter or leave a country must also be addressed. Confirming identity and eligibility are two related, but distinct, processes, and without doing the first part properly, the second part is prone to error.

Again, biometrics can play a vital role in sorting this all out. In fact, it’s reshaping the way we travel the world. The ubiquity of e-passports has done wonders to help streamline the process of passenger authentication, but let’s be honest; there are still security and logistical holes that have yet to be patched in many cases.

Still a world away

Let’s picture a different scenario for a moment. Now, instead of a domestic business traveler, you’re a wildlife photographer tasked with capturing the biodiversity of the animal kingdom – often in remote locations around the world.

Your e-passport works like a charm getting you through major international airports, but you’re just as likely to pass through ports of entry that lack connectivity with the outside world. Out here, your e-passport can’t even be properly checked against the International Civil Aviation Organization Public Key Directory and revocation list.

How are customs officials supposed to know your eligibility to enter the country? A paper visa is a good indicator, but not fool-proof. After all, your passport information can be up to ten years old. What if your citizenship has been revoked in that time? There’s no reliable way to check. Connected systems can remove a lot of the antiquated rules about not traveling during visa processing – rules that made sense prior to computers and air travel, but not in an age where we can have face-to-face meetings in another country and be back in a single business day.

Now consider this: you may be travelling to an area where corruption is wide spread, and suddenly you have an official interrogating you after seeing a visa stamp from an enemy nation. Sound far-fetched? Possibly, but similar incidents have occurred. These are serious questions that have no concrete answers at the moment. However, far from a discouragement, it’s precisely these types of situation that help spark innovation in travel processes.

No paper, no problem

I’m proud to report that my home country, Australia, is the first in the world to look into cloud-based digital passports. This initiative, though still in its infancy, could solve several common problems associated with paper passports. Among these is the fact that 38,000 Australians reported missing passports in 2014.

This would cease to be an issue if boarding a plane was as simple as pressing your finger on a scanner. And what about the scenarios mentioned above? For starters, a biometric-based passport can’t be seized, stolen or forged. Likewise, multiple visas can all be securely stored on a need-to-know basis and hidden from authorities in other countries, thereby eliminating the threat of prying eyes – and prying questions – upon entering a country that is in conflict with another nation you may have visited. This could help reduce tension and ensure safe passage.

Already moving in the right direction

Globally we are already starting to see changes for the better. Airports are putting in biometrics gates and counters to assist with travel and immigration. With fewer resources needed to process low risk travelers more attention can be given to areas that have a greater return on investment. It’s also not just about arrivals. More and more countries are looking to close the entire identity continuum with biometric exit programs. This ensures that we don’t just believe someone has left the country but we can be sure they haven’t overstayed their visa.

Naturally, as with any cloud-based technology, questions about privacy, safety and vulnerability of personal data are sure to arise as we see biometrics become more visible in airports and other entry points worldwide. These are valid concerns, but I’m convinced that going forward, we’ll start to see a trend emerge: a multi-tiered authentication method – such as a biometrics and ID card-based approach – that increases accuracy, convenience and safety for travelers and authorities alike. Bon voyage!

Derek Northrope is the head of Fujitsu’s Global Biometrics Community and Associate Director of Consulting and the Architecture/Technical Team lead in Ottawa, Canada.

Derek has over fifteen years’ experience in biometrics and identity management, including consulting, solution design and standards development and has worked with a number of countries on passport issuance and border control solutions. 

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