Four challenges for biometrics in the travel sector

Our series on the impact of biometric technologies on the travel sector continues. In this post we’re considering potential challenges and looking for ways they could be overcome.

The pace of adoption of biometrics to prove travellers’ identities is accelerating dramatically. The USA is a great example. Here, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has announced that after successful tests, it will work with the US Customs Border and Protection agency to roll out the technology countrywide and for all flights. Over the next few years, something that has been a novelty will quickly become an everyday part of checking in and boarding a flight for millions of US citizens and visitors to the USA.

As we’ve shown in earlier posts, the tests that have been conducted at airports around the world show real benefits for airlines, airports and passengers too. Check-in and boarding times are reduced dramatically and there’s also a reduction in staff costs.

So are there any drawbacks? Here are four that are likely to require further consideration.

1. What else happens to Biometric data?

Privacy groups have been quick to point out that once a traveller has provided their fingerprint, iris scan or face scan, it’s stored on a database.

Male passenger scanningthumb print at a check-in counter. (Photo: Shutterstock)

It’s very difficult for them to know how that data will be used in the future or to request for it to be deleted. The entity which handles traveller data and the principles it applies for sharing that data are crucial to retaining the trust of users. The current best practice is that a trusted organisation like a government agency retains traveller biometric records and allows carefully vetted partners like airlines and border security agencies to access to it to confirm a traveller’s identity. There’s a new acronym for this: IDaaS — Identity as a Service. Recent developments in data privacy legislation, particularly the advent of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, are overwhelmingly shaping data management approaches and pose important implementation considerations for global biometric initiatives and solutions. In the USA, biometric information privacy bills have been passed in Illinois, Texas and Washington.

2. Is Biometric data safe?

Aside from a traveller’s biometrics being shared with other entities without their knowledge there’s the issue of keeping that data secure. Whilst a compromised credit card can be replaced, biometric details are unique. Protecting citizens’ data needs to have the highest priority and new ways need to be found to ensure hacking can’t take place. Blockchain technology looks like a promising new way to do this. Data is distributed across a plethora of servers rather than having it all located in one place. With no central location that stores the data, there is no single point of attack, greatly increasing the security of the system. The Estonian government already uses Blockchain technology to keep citizen’s data secure with its KSI Blockchain project.

3. What happens if Biometrics fail?

Facial recognition technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. But it’s crucial that it’s consistently accurate for it to be used at wide scale. The algorithms and artificial intelligence technology that drive biometric recognition are becoming more sophisticated, improving accuracy rates all the time. Typically providers claim accuracy of around 98%. Some studies have shown problems identifying particular groups of people like children and certain skin tones and face shapes.

Regardless of this, the accuracy rate is certainly much higher than using officials to scrutinise passport photos. Research suggests this error rate is typically 15%. As we make this transition to wider use of biometric technology, it’s crucial we have the right processes and people in place for those rare situations where travellers can’t be identified successfully. Otherwise there’s a risk we create two tiers of customer and those who can’t be identified are discriminated against.

4. Do Biometrics lead to better customer service?

A big win for the airlines, hotels, cruise lines and more who are adopting biometric recognition is the improved customer experience as a result of faster processes, the elimination of redundant document checks, reduced waiting times, associated with checking people’s identity manually. Maximisation of capacity and the ability to process more passengers faster will represent the opportunity to defer infrastructure expansion. Travel is inherently a service industry. It’s important that the drive for adopting new technology like biometric recognition is as much about serving customers better as it is about reducing costs. It’s important to see this new technology as a way to improve the complete customer experience and to ensure that personal interaction remains a core part of the offering.

Other posts in this series include the trials being conducted at airports and ways biometrics are making travel smarter and easier.

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