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Is Seamless Travel Using Biometrics Closer on the Horizon Than You Think?

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Are you ready for a future where seamless travel is the norm? Well your customers are, but just when is that likely to happen? According to a panel of experts at the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in Seville earlier this month, that future could be coming sooner rather than later, though there are still a few wrinkles to be ironed out.

Actually, it turns out that the U.S. is way out front in preparations for seamless travel. After 9/11, U.S. officials began working on biometric system of airline and cruise passenger identification, which is now already in place in selected airports and should be available throughout the U.S. by the end of 2021. That’s a little more than two and a half years away.

Kevin McAleenan, commissioner-U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), kicked the discussion off with an address to WTTC delegates where he envisioned a trip to Europe from the U.S. where you could put your passport in a jacket or bag and never take it out. Instead, your face will serve as your identification. A face scan will automate your bag drop, open the gate at the security checkpoint and speed the aviation security process, and also the reentry process at customs in the U.S. An automated facial recognition process will confirm your identity without your ticket or passport. Elements of this “dream” trip are already available as part of Global Entry, but this face recognition will encompass much more of the entire trip.

Indeed, it will spread to other parts of the travel experience, from picking up a rental car without having to go to the counter to checking in at a hotel and going directly to a room without a key. Again, your face will open your door and no documents will need to be taken out to confirm your booking. “At those seven or eight places your face is your identity,” McAleenan said. “It’s faster and more secure…and secure without putting privacy at risk.”

This new verification process, to be used at U.S. Customs & Border Protection checkpoints throughout the U.S., uses biometric identity at every step of the travel continuum. “We can we make this a reality in partnership with government, between governments and with private suppliers,” said McAleenan. “Our experience in the U.S. proves this technology works.”

It not only works, but it is already being used at selected airport terminals around the country, such as in Terminal E in Miami International Airport. “At Terminal E we have a fully facial recognition arrival process.” McAleenan said. “You just step up to a kiosk and in one or two screens there’s facial recognition. We’ve had travelers looking in different directions but within less than a second we were getting matches.”

McAleenan said the U.S. selected facial as its biometric of choice because it is the most friendly and efficient system. The U.S. began using the system in June 2017 and since then almost 15 million passengers have used facial recognition achieving match rates of 98 percent. During 2018, biometric systems were put in place at 20 airports and four cruise terminals.

The U.S. also began using what McAleenan calls a simplified arrival process at selected gateways to eliminate time consuming steps. It’s our first attempt to re-envision how travelers arrive in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re working with U.S. government agencies….and are now in the third phase of data sharing with TSA…to create one consolidated traveler identification system.” Beyond airports, the U.S. also is testing the system at land borders and working with the cruise industry to implement it at cruise ports.

McAleenan said the U.S. intends to keep progressing with facial recognition systems and automated passport control in 2019 through partnership with travel industry and technology players. “Our goal is to account for 97 percent of air travelers by 2021,” he said.

The challenges remaining involve making sure the right technology is in place and is fully integrated with security systems. “It has privacy built into it by design,” McAleenan said. “We want to keep personally identifiable information on our side of the firewall…so CBP biometrics is hosted on secure platform and traveler photos are used for identity purposes only. We use encryption to maintain the photo for a limited time.”

On the other hand, McAleenan said travelers can always opt out of the biometric process if they have privacy or other concerns. He said more work remains to be done with future applications, for example, when biometric results need to be shared with a government. “I’m confident we can work these elements out,” he said. “The technology is there…but the next critical step is to have governments and industry make it work…and how do we communicate these benefits to the traveler.”

During a panel discussion following McAleenan’s remarks, participants agreed that a biometric future for customs and border control, as well as airline and cruise security checkpoints is coming up fast. “We need to recognize the change is going to happen very fast and we can’t be left behind,” said Richard Fain, chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., one of the panelists.

In fact, Fain’s company is already developing a facial recognition system to speed passenger boarding at its cruise terminals. It has signed up IDEMIA, a leader in augmented identity, in cooperation with U.S. CBP to expand Royal Caribbean’s debarkation process using IDEMIA’s MFace, a high speed 3D face capture technology. With the successful completion of trials at Cape Liberty in New Jersey, and the Port of Miami, the program is now moving into commercial production at these ports.

IDEMIA’s facial recognition technology has enabled the Royal Caribbean passenger debarkation process to be both more secure and efficient. The use of IDEMIA’s MFace technology also has played a key role in enhancing the passenger experience by completing the process significantly faster than the manual verification method previously used.

Of course, there are going to be some roadblocks along the way before facial recognition becomes the prevalent way travelers enter and exit the U.S. and other countries by air or by sea. And part of that may involve politics.

Just days after McAleenan spoke at WTTC in Seville, he was named acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the resignation of TK. He immediately found himself squarely in the public eye in the debate over immigration and President Donald Trump’s threat to close the border between the U.S. and Mexico to stem the flow of immigrants coming mostly from Central America. Indeed, CBP said last week that it will reassign customs agents from airports and other entry points to the U.S.-Mexico border, potentially causing more delays at these airports.

That, in turn, led the U.S. Travel Association to criticize the government’s move to pull customs agents from the nation’s airports . “The administration rightly points out the importance of security, but we believe security priorities and economic priorities go hand in hand,” said Tori Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy for U.S. Travel. “In pursuing its objectives on the southern border, we urge the administration to keep other entry points appropriately staffed and effectively secured. Aside from concerns about migration and border security, it is an immutable fact: travel is trade, and the U.S. economy and jobs base enjoy many billions of dollars in beneficial impact from legitimate international business and leisure visitors to the United States.”

By  James Shillinglaw

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