Every mode of travel – across air, land or sea – that involves leaving one country to enter another poses an inherent challenge to governments: Make sure that everyone who crosses their border is in fact who they say they are. In addition to government entities, transportation providers have to ensure a smooth and secure passenger identification process.
Current methods of identity verification often fall short in both security and efficiency, largely because identity verification depends on biographic documents. Biometric technology — with its ability to positively verify any person’s identity with a scan of the fingertip, iris or face — can solve this problem and simultaneously deliver efficiencies that will likely never be realized in document-based processing.
The imperfect passport
As the globally recognized ID for international travel, the passport is as effective as can be expected from a biographic document. Government-issued under strict controls, and featuring the bearer’s signature and picture, passports include multiple built-in security features that are not generally known to the bearer or to the public. This makes passport forgery a very difficult undertaking. Still, passports have a serious, built-in limitation: They can be separated from people.
The black market for stolen passports is thriving. While there is no way of knowing how many people have successfully passed security checkpoints with stolen passports, we know it happens. In the most highly-publicized recent instance, two passengers were found to have used stolen passports to board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on its last trip. That security breach became known only because the aircraft disappeared over the South China Sea, and investigators subsequently were deployed to pour over passenger records in detail. Normal screening at the point of boarding did not detect the problem.
Inefficient security processing
In addition to security issues, the use of biographic information to verify identity poses a problem in processing. An authorized agent must review every passport. Greeting the passenger, accepting a passport, checking its security features, comparing the picture with the person, asking relevant questions, and clearing the passenger to proceed may last a minute or two.
Those minutes apply to every passenger being processed, and they add up quickly when aggregated over the millions of travelers making their way through any busy international airport, sea port or land crossing. Lines can get extremely long at peak periods, causing a maximum number of passengers who pose no risk whatsoever to become frustrated at what has become an inconvenient fact of travel.
Biometric augmentation enhances process
The answer is at hand, if we take the necessary step of augmenting or replacing biographic documents with biometric scans. Nothing can top biometric identity verification for sheer accuracy — no two people’s fingertips, irises or faces are identical. Biometrics is also extremely secure in that the identifying characteristics are inseparable from the self. They cannot be lost or stolen, and are easily produced on demand at any time.
Biometric technology is also unmatched for process efficiency in identity verification. Having the traveler expose a finger, iris or face to a scanner is all it takes, and can be completed in seconds. For registered travelers, biometrics, along with identity documents, will drastically increase processing speeds. For others, it should noticeably reduce travel lines while increasing security.
Applications are slowly emerging
Because biometrics across all international travel will require addressing issues beyond technology — including the need for countries to trust each other in information-sharing — passport presentations and security lines are likely to remain for the near future. Nevertheless, governments and the transportation industry are moving forward.
The U.S. Global Entry and U.K. Registered Traveller programs incorporate biometrics in expedited processing. With both programs, registered travelers from participating countries enter the country through efficient automated eGates or kiosks.
Global Entry and Registered Traveller memberships are growing rapidly due to the simple yet highly desirable convenience of avoiding processing lines. As there are likely few travelers who wouldn’t consider that convenience an exceptional alternative to today’s identity verifications, programs like these may end up serving as proofs of concept for more ubiquitous biometrics to come.
John is a Vice President and Tech Fellow specializing in biometrics, identity management, and forensics. He uses technology to improve citizen services, homeland security, law enforcement, defense, and intelligence operations.More Content by John Mears