Biometrics, Security and Travel

By Assad Bhuglah
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Biometrics is the science of analysing physical or behavioural characteristics specific to each individual in order to be able to authenticate his/her identity. It has quickly established itself as the most pertinent means of identifying and authenticating individuals in a reliable and fast way, through the use of unique biological characteristics. Biometrics technology is being widely used for automated recognition in the fields of travel, immigration, visa applications. It speeds up border crossing through the use of scanners, which use the principle of recognition by comparison of the face and/or fingerprints. Many countries have set up biometric infrastructures to control migration flows to and from their territories. Fingerprint scanners and cameras installed at border posts capture certain types of information that help identify travellers entering the country in a more precise and reliable way.

Biometric verification is a means by which a person can be uniquely identified by evaluating one or more distinguishing biological traits such as fingerprints, hand geometry, earlobe geometry, retina and iris patterns, voice waves, DNA, and signatures. Biometric identification refers to any technology that does one of two things: identifies the person or authenticates his/her identity. For identification, an image is run against a database of images. For authentication, an image has to be accessed from the device to confirm a match. The latter is typically used for unlocking computers, phones, and applications. Since Apple introduced its incredibly usable biometric identification with Apple’s home button fingerprint sensor in 2013, the appetite for biometrics has expanded rapidly. The oldest form of biometric verification is fingerprinting. Police has been fingerprinting for over 100 years and has used digital biometric databases since the 1980s. But until the 2013 iPhone, consumer-level biometric verification was largely limited to unlocking devices with fingerprints.

Biometrics is radically transforming the passenger experience in airports around the world. This technology, combined with new self-service solutions, now offers the means to address today's security challenges, the search for enhanced quality of service, while catering for the sustained growth in passenger numbers. According to the International Air Transport Association, it is estimated that there will nearly four billion air passengers in 2017 and this number is set to double over the next 20 years. Airports are now taking into account increasingly stringent security demands and stricter passenger controls. The travel sector finds itself confronted with decisive requirements: to provide fluidity for "reliable" passengers, limit waiting times and passenger delays, reinforce controls to counter potential threats, all of this while containing costs. Through the use of biometrics, the travel industry is now discovering the tremendous potential of application, which goes far beyond strictly security-related applications, allowing them to know their customers better.

Over the past 15 years, airports and airlines have very widely opted for the deployment of automatic systems with the aim of freeing up bottlenecks in passenger flows - which can be a very problematic issue at peak times - by simplifying the check-in process. These systems, in particular automatic check-in kiosks or automated bag drop-off points have revolutionised the check-in process, allowing travellers to save time by checking in themselves, thus reducing waiting times by 30 per cent compared to traditional check-in desk. Studies show that the more passengers have access to the use of technology, the higher the rate of satisfaction is, thus allowing the traveller experience at the airport to be improved.

In the travel industry, biometrics plays a key role in taking the automated services far beyond. A unique profile can be created at the beginning of the journey, face or fingerprint will be scanned, and used as the identity token for verification for the rest of the journey. Thanks to biometrics, everyone effectively carries his/her own means of authorisation. All these initiatives reflect the current trend towards greater automation of control procedures. The modern-day traveller in fact spends a lot of time surfing the web, sending messages, updating on the latest news, etc. So, booking a flight, checking in, boarding, smiling at the camera on their phone to access it, and so on, look like a logical extension of lifestyle habits initiated by all these new technologies.

While biometric tech is fast and efficient, it raises all kinds of security and privacy concerns, which the governments and manufacturers have yet to address them. There are two types of risks that can arise in the use of biometrics. First, there is the risk that biometric data can be used to other ends than those agreed by the citizen either by service providers or fraudsters. As soon as biometric data is in the possession of a third party, there is always a risk that such data may be used for purposes different to those to which the persons concerned have given their consent. There may thus be cases of unwanted end-use if such data is interconnected with other files, or if it is used for types of processing other than those for which it was initially intended. Secondly, there can be risk on the biometric database and data presented for biometric check. The data can be captured during their transmission to the central database and fraudulently replicated in another transaction. The result is a person losing control over his/her own data which poses major risks in terms of privacy.

The concerns around identity fraud are legitimate and genuine. But leaving these concerns aside for a moment, and focusing on the traveller experience, biometrics brings immense convenience of life and ease of business in the new world of the Internet of Things, especially in smart cities and smart airports of today. For the travellers, the very idea of the possibility to authenticate themselves once and for all, either on their mobile device or at an airport kiosk, and thus generate a sole secure identity that will be used throughout the whole journey, is a big advancement in the travel industry. Travelers who are in a hurry – or even stressed – and are more interested in making purchases in the duty-free shops than waiting in queue to check-in , or to remove their shoes and belts when going through security, find biometrics to a great sense of relief. Biometrics is in the process of radically transforming the "passenger experience" at airports, making it not only quicker, but also much less stressful and more secure.


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Founded January 1969