Will Passports Become A Thing Of The Past With Biometrics?

Recently we heard from Australian Business Traveller that Emirates is planning to trial the use of biometrics as a method of passenger identity verification for flights. The trial will be taking place on select flights between Australia and London later this year, with automated facial recognition taking the place of document checks everywhere. Could this be the beginning of the end for physical passports?

The concept of the modern day passport goes back over 600 years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One ID

This trial will go under the banner of the program name: ‘One ID’. It is to include check-in desks, passport control counters, airport lounges, boarding queues and more.

IATA Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac outlined the vision for ‘One ID’, saying:

“…[it] is a paperless travel experience where passengers can fly around the world safely and securely using only their individual biometric data. This will be achieved using a trusted digital identity, biometric recognition technology, and a collaborative identity management platform accessible to various authorised stakeholders.”

Continuing to expand…

According to Arabian Business, the system is already undergoing testing on flights between London and Dubai. The latest trials will take place on flights between Dubai and Australia.

Dubai airport
Dubai Airport is the home of Emirates Airlines. Photo: ahisgett via Flickr

Unfortunately, neither Dubai Airport or Emirates Airline are currently able to confirm which Australian airport(s) will participate in the trial.

“Every traveller will appreciate the convenience of getting from the curb to the gate without ever having to show a paper passport or boarding pass,” -Alexandre de Juniac, IATA Director General and CEO

Is this the future of travel?

According to Wikipedia, King Henry V of England gets the credit of inventing the first passport in the modern sense of the word, as a reference was found in a 1414 Act of Parliament. It’s surreal to think that a system we’ve been using for the last 600 years could be replaced with the recognition of our own faces.

Passports may become a thing of the past as biometric technology develops. Photo: Peter Heeling

However, as air travel becomes more accessible to people all over the world, passenger volume will continue to grow and the busiest of airports will need to find more efficient ways to handle that volume and improve their ability to manage capacity.

As a matter of fact, according to Arabian Business, Dubai International airport holds the title as the world’s busiest international airport with 2018 annual traffic surpassing 89.1 million. This seems like the best (or worst?) place to trial the new facial recognition ID system…

The problem with passports

Strangely, even in 2019 and the age of chip-embedded passports, fake-passports are still being sold. Obviously we’ll never know how many fake passports actually get through airport security and immigration. However, as the BBC mini-documentary video below shows, it was possible as recently as 2014…

As many frequent travelers can attest to, passports can be problematic. To have travel plans of high-importance delayed just because this paper booklet has a small tear or water damage seems like it should be a thing of the past.

Does anyone remember the sad but hilarious case of a man’s passport being drawn on by his young son?


Then there’s the story of the man who will pay $800 Canadian dollars in temporary passport costs until he is eligible for a new passport in 2025. All because some drops of rain hit the photo page of his passport while lining up at the Canada-US land border with the car window open.

Those are the extreme cases. But there are also the day-to-day challenges for frequent travelers:

  • Running out of (blank) pages and needing space for a full-page visa
  • Having a passport lost or stolen
  • Delays at an embassy waiting for a visa

It would certainly be nice to do away with these issues!

Potential dangers

While the thought of a passport-free travel experience sounds enticing, facial recognition technology comes with its own issues. Issues range from inaccuracy to privacy concerns.

A May 2019 article from the BBC reported that a Home Office assessment found a particular facial recognition system was only half as good as the human eye, saying that,

“Out of the initial 211 searches, the automated facial search of PND identified just 20 true matches, whereas visual examination by the tester identified a total of 56 matches.”

The assessment was looking at the ability of facial recognition software to cope with black and ethnic minority faces. In fact, it has become a key concern for those worried about the technology. Some claim that the software often trains using predominantly white faces.

Furthermore, UK police’s former head of facial recognition had knowledge that skin colour was indeed an issue. At an April 2014 meeting, Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton said:

“…ethnicity can have an impact on [facial recognition] search accuracy.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, while I like having a physical record of my travels, I could do without the stress of taking care of that tiny booklet.

Where do you think One ID will launch next? With Emirates connecting so much of the world, could the next airport be Hong Kong, Paris, New York or somewhere else? Are you in favor of this type of system?

1 comment
  1. How naive is the writer of the article? Maybe haven’t travelled much. In most countries I have visited (other than my own) it is a legal requirement to keep ones passport available for inspection by the authorities (such as police etc ) at anytime (which usually means on your person) to demonstrate you are in the country legally. Passports are not only for use to pass through immigration points at airports.

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