Man using check-in kiosk at airport showing how biometrics will transform airport travel

How Biometrics Will Transform Airport Travel

The airport customer experience is rarely efficient, perhaps least of all over the holidays, when travelers often spend an hour or more caught in security and worried whether they will board flights on time.

Adding to the stress is the possibility of forgetting an ID at home or losing a boarding pass en route to the airport. Even without any unfortunate incidents complicating the trip, travelers are exhausted before the flight boards, having scrambled to retrieve required documentation, waiting in the airline’s queue to check baggage, clearing ticketing and security lines, and rapidly removing and replacing clothing items as they navigated TSA.

The good thing about a long line is that it gives us plenty of time to fantasize about the future of airports, complete with shorter airline queues and security lines, happy travelers and paperless ticketing — and that future is within sight due to advancements in biometric technology. Some airports, such as the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, have already implemented completely biometric terminals. These include CLEAR biometric screening processes, which allows travelers to proceed through TSA — and in some places, into club lounges or onto planes — by simply looking into a camera.

Better tech, shorter lines, improved customer experience

Although digital ID programs are relatively small in scale, we’ll see major programs start to roll out in the next few years. In 2018, 77% of airports reported they were planning major programs or research and development initiatives in biometric security management over the next five years.

Ultimately, biometrics will be integrated from curb to plane seat, which makes flying a ticketless, document-free experience. Fingerprints or facial recognition enables everything from checking baggage at the curb to purchasing cocktails in the club lounge without the need for a government-issued ID. As capabilities expand, customers can expect a simplified and more pleasurable experience at the airport. However, if the benefits of these programs are so clear and the technology already exists, why isn’t it mainstream?

Barriers to implementing digital ID programs

Most barriers to the adoption of biometric ID management relate to concerns about cybersecurity and privacy. Many of these concerns are rooted in a lack of understanding of the technology and its use cases, as well as the knowledge that China uses similar data technology as a form of surveillance.

However, systems in the US operate differently, and the government and vendors must promote transparency and education about how these systems are built and used. Developing a deeper understanding of how airports would use biometrics and how organizations (like some state DMVs) are already using the tech can help debunk these fears and facilitate mainstream adoption.

Here are the top three things citizens should know about biometrics:

  1. Personal data is protected. When Americans hear about personal data collection, they often think about China’s surveillance state and worry a similar infringement of privacy will occur here. However, the US remains committed to public/private separation, and this extends to biometric systems in airports. At the beginning of each day, the biometric system enrolls verified, authenticated photos and creates biometric matching data to compare with travelers moving throughout the airport that day. From here, the private companies that implement the technology match biometric data with captured photos of travelers, and then discard the data at the end of the day.

These systems also segment the storage of biometric data for the person from the other personal identifying information (PII) of travelers. This mitigates the impact of a cybersecurity breach from internal or external bad actors. Biometric data on its own is less valuable to criminals when it’s not accompanied by a first or last name, or other PII. Because photos and identifying information are stored in separate systems, the mechanism must reference biometric matching data using a key that reinforces clear separation.

  1. Systems will become more accessible. Currently, most biometric systems choose one of many biometrics — most often facial recognition or a fingerprint. However, for a user with a face not enrollable for facial recognition due to a genetic abnormality or accident, or another whose fingerprints have been damaged, this tech can be inaccessible and inaccurate. In the future, you’ll start to see more multimodal applications, giving users the option of offering their fingerprint, iris, face and other biometric modalities.

Until both vendors and users adopt a more inclusive mindset, programs in airports will be opt-in. Consumers simply need more time to learn about biometrics and become comfortable with the technology and vendors must create better education programs. Only at this point will biometrics transition into standard practice at airports.

  1. Your biometric data already exists and it’s being used. Those who believe it’s a new concept to have biometric data out in the world are mistaken: Users with a profile photo on LinkedIn, Twitter or photos posted to other social media platforms are already broadcasting their photos for potential use in biometric matching systems. Malicious actors can download that photo and create biometric matching data.

In addition, some state DMVs use biometric data for security to combat identity theft. For example, when the DMV takes a photo for a license, they take the photo and store it using biometric matching templates. If someone enters the DMV trying to steal someone’s identity by getting a license with their name, the DMV will be able to see the person’s face doesn’t match. This protects, rather than exploits, personal data.

The conversation on biometrics has only just begun and must go much further before we can expect a full rollout. To encourage adoption, vendors must prioritize transparency and education, and the government needs to take a more active role in creating spaces for public discussion about necessary policy and regulation.

Various organizations, cities and states have created policies about use cases for facial recognition and other biometric data collection, and this needs to be flushed out at the federal level. Only once the public is assured that their data can’t be sold or used unjustly can we move closer to hassle-free airport travel.