The Promise of Biometric Identification in Travel Industry
In 2016, the United Kingdom voted for exiting the European Union (popularly known as Brexit) and the United States elected a government that brought in tougher travel and immigration restrictions. There is a growing sentiment among people, world over, to protect their social and economic interests over anything else. A world without boundaries where individuals can travel seamlessly without the need for endless identifications and authorizations would be wonderful! However, it’s unlikely that we can build such a world anytime soon. If anything, boundaries are only growing tighter and will continue to do so for the next few years.
While all of this is taking place, travel and tourism has been steadily on the rise. Long distance travel is becoming feasible and affordable for more and more people. As per a recent report by World Travel and Tourism Council1, travel and tourism is directly contributing 3.2% to the world economy and is one of the fastest growing industries in the world at 4.6% annual growth.
This growth has put the border protection and security infrastructure to test and the infrastructure is not scaling at the same rate as cross border travel is. While we wait for biometric identifications like facial recognition to become widely accepted, the traditional methods of identification and authorization for travel are proving to be bottlenecks. At the same time, multiple initiatives have been institutionalized to standardize and modernize some of these identification and authorization mechanisms.
Take for instance the most important travel document of the modern era – Passports! The initial passports, dating as far back as the 14th century, were hand written. Still hand written, they were standardized as late as the 1980s. Then came passports that were suitable for optical character recognition (more commonly known as machine readable passports) and the most recent passports are biometric. While passports have been the de-facto mechanism for identification that is accepted world over, they are not always a sufficient form of authorization for individuals to enter foreign land. Traditionally, visas fulfilled this purpose. Visas used to be pieces of paper pasted in the passports with a validity period. More recently, countries have started issuing electronic visas.
The evolution of such different standards has made it possible for machines to verify the document authenticity and validate its association to the individual possessing it.
This multi-factor identification and authorization process is the most painstaking process travelers face all over the world when traveling across borders. Both, IATA (International Air Transport Association) and ACI (Airports Council Association) have identified initiatives that are intended to make air travel hassle-free and seamless for the travelers. IATA’s Fast Travel program is aimed at introducing self-service in six areas of the passenger journey. One of the six areas for introducing self-service is Document Check. Automated border control gates are cropping up at airports across the globe. The efficiency provided by the system is evident by the lack of queues at locations that have established these systems. However, they tend to support only a fraction of the population that travels across borders. The underlying challenge to make these services widely available is the lack of a trusted unified mechanism for identification and authorization of travelers.
Foundation for a Trusted Unified Identification Mechanism
The Passport was meant to be a universally accepted proof of Identity. This further expanded to biometric passports that contain digital biometric identity of the subject. These passports are the basis of most of the biometric border control gates. There are other initiatives taking place in this direction in the industry. For instance, IATA has initiated a program called One ID2 to address the identity problem. The program is still in a nascent stage and we will need to observe and contribute to the direction that this program takes. At the heart of One ID is the vision to deliver a secure, seamless, and efficient passenger experience.
I believe the foundation of a trusted unified identification mechanism will need to be based on the following four tenets:
- Government and Industry Collaboration - This is of utmost importance. The governments across the world are overhauling their existing citizen identity programs and there are those that are embarking on new initiatives. In the last decade, we saw India launch and execute its citizen identity program, ‘Aadhar’ in 2009. While the program has been a huge success in terms of enrolments, with 2 billion registrations, the travel industry is yet to benefit from it. The primary reason being that the technology foundation of this program was not designed for travel industry use cases. Collaboration with government entities will help set the direction for a more robust and inclusive framework for the future.
- Recognition Technology – There are multiple biometric recognition technologies that have evolved to be trusted. Fingerprints, iris, and facial have been the most common forms of recognition. Fingerprints have traditionally been the most trusted form; however, it is also the biometric recognition that needs the most contact. In recent years, facial recognition has gained a lot of momentum and is now beginning to be the go-to technology for all new initiatives. It is also the biometric mechanism that requires the least proximity with the subject and I believe could be the primary basis for identification and authorization at airports in future.
- Digital Identity – To be accessible globally by trusted sources and always updated with the latest information about the individual, the identity needs to be digital. While physical copies will continue to exist in the foreseeable future, I believe we are seeing a progressive transition to the digital medium. More and more countries are beginning to issue digital visas with no physical footprint.
Technologies that will contribute to the evolution of a unified identification mechanism
Considering the present landscape and technologies that are evolving to mainstream adoption, the top two that lend themselves heavily to the travel industry are:
- Facial Recognition – Biometric facial recognition technology is rapidly evolving and the accuracy levels are rising to an extent that these technologies can be used for ensuring security of citizens. Machine Learning-based facial recognition will contribute immensely to an identity management system as it brings quite specific benefits to the table:
- These solutions constantly improve simply by being used by more individuals.
- They are also able to automatically adapt to age related changes that are inherently associated with humans.
- Blockchain – Much has been said about blockchain and potential use cases have been realized across industries. An identity management system of this scale will have the following requirements:
- It must be accessible globally and always be available.
- The integrity of the system will be paramount. It must be resilient to unauthorized alterations.
- Countries must be able to grant and revoke authorizations (visas) in almost real time.
- Security organizations must be able to share information seamlessly and accurately. For example, no fly lists.
Blockchain lends itself very well to meet all the above requirements and I believe will play a pivotal role in the travel and hospitality industry. Blockchain can also help with efficient customer identity management especially in the hospitality sector. Read our paper on the Top Use Cases for Blockchain in Hospitality to learn more.
Implications of Biometric Identification for the Travel Industry
The evolution of unified identification mechanism will be a long process and it will take longer for adoption. However, the travel industry will need to move much faster with following consideration:
- The present infrastructure is running at full capacity in the present-day circumstances. With the passenger traffic expected to double in the next 15-17 years, the current infrastructure will not be able to sustain.
- The industry needs to innovate to introduce efficiencies that can maximize the output of existing infrastructure and not require scaling up linearly with growth.
All this is important for travel brands as Customer Experience is the new battleground for brand differentiation especially in the experience economy of travel. Travelers have more choices than ever in the past. The recent traveler survey by Mindtree, Expectations vs. Reality: How to Better Serve the Connected Traveler, corroborates this fact repeatedly. They can choose what transport hubs they transit from towards their destination, the transport provider they use and the time they spend at the transit hubs. The brands that keep the customer at the center of designing the experiences will win. In the immediate short term, opportunities to differentiate exist by enabling seamless journeys for travelers by introducing some of the above-mentioned biometric technologies to solve the bottlenecks within their own ecosystem and improve overall experience for the traveler.
I believe, as the long-term direction evolves, the travel industry needs to act swiftly and set some long-term objectives of seamless and enjoyable travel experiences for its customers. Let me know of your thoughts on this at [email protected]
- TRAVEL & TOURISM GLOBAL ECONOMIC IMPACT & ISSUES 2018, World Travel & Tourism Council
- Fact Sheet: One ID, International Air Transport Association, May 2018