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Airport biometrics adoption itinerary explored by diverse stakeholders

Airport biometrics adoption itinerary explored by diverse stakeholders

It has been almost 20 years since the late Max Snijder led the deployment of iris biometrics at Schiphol Airport for passport screening in the early 2000s for passenger facilitation programs leveraging the technology to proliferate to airports around the world. Trials and pilots of systems for boarding, security and customs checks, and a growing range of touchpoints have followed, and early operational deployments are being rolled out. Two major motivations are driving the expansion: the need for enhanced air travel security following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and an increase in passenger traffic which is already straining airport infrastructure, and is expected to intensify over the coming decades.

IATA projects the number of air travel passengers will nearly double, from 4 billion to 7.8 billion, over the next 20 years, and the UNWTO expects international passengers will grow by over 38 percent in the next dozen years from 1.3 billion to 1.8 billion. Accommodating these numbers without making airport experiences a time-consuming series of lengthy lineups in overcrowded terminals requires accelerated processes wherever possible. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is planning to biometrically screen 97 percent of air passengers leaving the country within the next four years under its Biometric Entry/Exit program.

Industry groups are responding with a coordinated effort to put systems in place to accommodate the demand, while satisfying security mandates. Those systems rely on biometric identity. But are the security and capacity challenges really compatible with a convenient customer experience? Will people be comfortable enough with the technology to use it? Who will pay for it? Does it even work the way it is supposed to?

All of these questions must be answered for the market segment to reach its massive potential, but the change could be quite rapid. The global market for airport biometrics is alternately forecast to generate over a billion dollars in the next five years, or to grow by 27 percent in the next three. Either scenario suggests that the wave of deployments in 2018 and early 2019, during which government and industry trials or operational roll-outs jumped by dozens at U.S. airports, and were launched in over a dozen other countries around the world, will be outdone over the next year or so.

“Industry has woken up to the value of this technology,” he says, “whether its facial recognition or fingerprints or iris, you see this all over the spectrum,” NEC Corporation of America Vice President of Federal Operations Benji Hutchinson told Biometric Update in an interview.

Increasing use is also accompanied by growing public awareness, which surveys indicate is increasing public comfort with biometrics, but is also informing social dialogue about the nature of privacy and the implications of biometric technology itself – particularly facial recognition.

Airlines already collect personal data about air passengers, and share that data with governments, and facial images are collected by governments as part of normal visa and immigration procedures.

Safety first or end-to-end?

The security application would thus seem a safer bet to scale immediately. CBPs facial recognition systems for Biometric Exit remain in the trial phase, however. While those trials have steadily expanded to cover more airports, the need to make the security, convenience, and business cases all at once, while establishing consent, privacy, and data protection practices constrains the speed of adoption.

For airports, industry experts say the full value will be realized with comprehensive systems, like that proposed in IATA’s One ID initiative to create a seamless passenger experience. SITA Head of Technology Strategy, Americas, Sherry Stein says that step is still too large for many airports, but that does not necessarily prevent them from carrying out initial deployments.

“The way the technology has evolved, you don’t have to have a full end-to-end implementation to begin to learn about the technology,” Stein told Biometric Update. “Because the introduction of biometrics is still relatively novel in this space, people tend to pick different touch-points that are more easily accessible or deployable than others.”

SITA research indicates that the number of airports planning to invest in single-token travel has increased from 40 to 70 percent, suggesting that at some point, interoperable systems will be used to fill in the gaps. The company is betting that those plans will become trials and operational systems in the near future.

“We’re still very much focused on that end to end seamless travel journey and how to bring value across the entire value chain,” Stein says.

Deployments of biometrics for security have often led the way in the airport space, from Schiphol to Biometric Exit, but even there, the business case is still being worked out. According to IATA, a standard position applies that governments should pay for the applications that they endorse or impose on airport operators, but IATA’s Head of Aviation Facilitation Céline Canu cautions in an email interview that it is still early days.

“The use of biometrics for aviation security related checks is new and the protective security value is not fully realized as yet,” Canu says. “The use of biometrics alone does not meaningfully counter the kind of threats the industry has recently experienced and/or likely to endure in the medium- to long-term.”

That means a true understanding of the security value of biometric checks can only come from a complex comparison of disparate system made up of differing elements from airport to airport, along with the differences in context between those airports. Different countries, and even individual airports could find significant differences in their ability to utilize biometric checks, or to ensure accurate security checks without them.

In the U.S., however, CBP has already engaged a broad group of stakeholders to build the public-private partnerships behind the growing number of Biometric Exit trials, which have nearly doubled from nine airports in late 2017 to 17 by mid-2019. CBP had hoped to process the majority of international flights departing the country’s top 20 airports by early 2018, but it has already caught more than 20 imposters, Hutchinson notes, and the program seems likely to cross that threshold in the coming months.

The trials, while controversial in some corners, have helped encourage a growing trend of acceptance and adoption of facial recognition, Hutchinson says, which is now combined with a greater understanding of biometric technology’s value among aviation industry players. Stein also says government agency participation in the funding of trials and other processes is making adoption easier for airlines and airports.

“Because they’re eager to get adoption and collaboration with the airports and the airlines, they’re working very actively across the stakeholders including IATA, ACI (Airports Council International), ourselves, and each of the early adopter carriers to show how the technology they’re providing can add benefit both from a customer experience perspective, and an operational efficiencies, while helping CBP meet its mandate,” Stein points out.

Vision-Box Director of Business Solutions Aaron Beeson says the push for biometric security checks is having a significant impact on other areas of the traveler journey.

“Where we see some of the progress being made is in different approaches for a single stream across that curb-to-gate journey, or there are more sets of deployments on a particular touchpoint to really enhance that experience. That’s where we’re seeing Biometric Exit help in the U.S.”

Vision-Box began working on curb-to-gate biometrics and automation with the Aruba Happy Flow program that went fully live in 2015. Delta has partnered with NEC for curb-to-gate biometrics in Atlanta, and a number of other major hubs, including in Shanghai Hangqiao and Heathrow, have recently launched deployments or plan to soon.

Who wants it enough to pay?

If the aviation industry is becoming convinced of the value of biometrics, further trials and deployments should provide further evidence in their favor. Most of the public appears to be ready for the technology, as a survey from early 2018 shows 84 percent of travelers would use biometrics for security checks, while more than six out of ten are hoping for wider and faster deployment of the technology for several processes.

Industry bodies like IATA and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) have been attempting to harmonize stakeholder efforts to make the rollout as fast, as wide, and as smooth as possible.

Face was decided on as the primary biometric by governments decided at the ICAO level, with fingerprint or iris biometrics as a secondary identifier, Canu notes, with ISO providing standards for each. ICAO doc 9303 specifications for ePassports make them interoperable with different facial recognition systems.

“We can expect that the passport will facilitate the travel of passengers for the coming years and that the choice of biometrics may not evolve,” Canu warns. “Nonetheless IATA works with ICAO to produce the specifications for States to issue digital identities (digital passports) which will provide Governments with ‘advance Passports’ thereby facilitating border control checks.”

The capacity crunch will motivate airports to leverage such capabilities, says Chris Gilliland, director of Vancouver International Airport’s (YVR’s) Innovative Travel Solutions (ITS), particularly as physical expansion is often not an option airport operators have.

“It’s about capacity, it’s about being competitive,” he says. “For airports, expanding out facilities is a really expensive endeavor. A lot of airports are on protected lands, and we really have limited space to expand to.”

ITS began developing biometric solutions to meet its own capacity needs, and now supplies kiosks to 44 airports around the world. It developed the technology to meet its own needs, and has roughly doubled passenger throughput without expanding since opening its international terminal in 1996. Gilliland also sees ROI opportunities for airport operators from increased retail and commercial value, as decreasing lineups both reduces the physical space needed, and increases the amount of leisure time travelers have. This presents the possibility of both capex and opex benefits for end-to-end biometric deployment.

With governments, airlines, and airports all collaborating on and benefiting from biometric systems, different deployments have followed different funding models, and Stein says the issue is still largely unresolved.

“In the U.S. and in a lot of markets the big question is who’s paying,” Stein acknowledges. “I think the way it’s going to likely unfold is there is going to be some sort of cost-sharing model.”

The business case for a full deployment of biometric CBP checks was judged by the Greater Orlando Airport Authority to be worth a $4 million investment. Orlando is now positioned to expand its implementation and potentially establish a reputation as a leader in easy, convenient travel.

Working out the different operational roles played by CBP and biometrics providers to protect traveler’s data has meant forging new data management and sharing practices between partners, to ensure both secure and appropriate treatment of sensitive personal information, and efficient service delivery, according to Beeson.

“That’s been a really interesting case study to be able to see how government as the original owners of the citizen registry, can be able to actually provide a function back to the industry that can help to optimize what the process can be, while also maintaining that citizen data with the citizen themselves, or with the government.”

This kind of partnership will have to be extended for more ambitious programs like One ID to deliver the promised biometric overhaul of the common airport experience of documents and lineups. In the U.S., baggage checks are the domain of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which is also considering the value of biometric checks.

“Keep an eye on TSA, and think about what they’re doing because they’re going to be one of the next government agencies at DHS to really push the envelope,” Hutchinson advises. For TSA to adopt a process interoperable with CBP’s Biometric Entry/Exit also implies setting a standard for integration of different touchpoints. “Once you get CBP and TSA rowing in the same direction, then you’ve truly got that seamless experience.”

Stein also asserts that bag drop is the next touchpoint likely to see broad biometrics deployment.

Elsewhere in the world, she notes, conditions motivating investment in passenger facilitation and preserving security are similar, but access to technology, and ePassports in particular, can be a limiting factor. Ultimately, she says there is not yet enough data to know if the business case for biometrics supports individual touchpoints, or if end-to-end solutions are necessary to see a full return.

“As an airport operator, technology companies are telling a good story, but we have to, as an airport operator and as the airport operator community, take a real pragmatic approach to any of this,” says Gilliland.

Who owns the data?

Even in situations where the stakeholders are ready to invest, a number of potential barriers to widespread adoption of airport biometrics remain. Not least among them is a set of questions about how implementations treat data.

“Technology is the easy part, but it’s how you implement it in an airport, what controls are around the data, who owns the data?” Gilliland asks. “These are the big decisions that we see as an airport that must be addressed before we’re able to look at this technology.”

Members of U.S. Congress have asked for the rollout of airport biometrics to be paused while the legal frameworks and civil rights implications are worked out, but Hutchinson is confident that much of the concern can be cleared up through better understanding. The privacy community is citing hypothetical problems without recognizing the problems being solved, and edge cases are constantly being worked on by people at NEC and other technology companies.

Considered with clarity, he says, airport biometric systems are working very well. That clarity is not always provided, however. No system works 100 percent of the time, but the Biometric Exit and paperless boarding systems have so far been very close.

“We have to be careful how we talk about these error rates,” Hutchinson cautions. “When we talk about a 1 percent or 2 percent error rate in an aviation environment, what that means may actually be that you have one non-cooperative subject, somebody who wasn’t looking at the camera the right way, or they were moving too much, and the camera failed to acquire the image.”

Beeson says Vision-Box and other biometrics companies have a practical obligation to uphold the reputation of programs they participate in, as well as a professional ethical obligation. Maintaining privacy and performing ethical data collection are now part of the market demand.

“You have to be able to demonstrate how responsible you are, what you’re going to do with the information, and how it’s going to be processed, and then also to be auditable, to be able to show that its being processed in the way that you claim it is.”

Establishing the frameworks to satisfy data security and privacy concerns and prevent a reputation-destroying incident is becoming a priority for industry groups and international organizations. That means figuring out what the processes are, communicating them, and building enough consensus around them to set the necessary regulations and protocols.

“That’s an area that we’re quite engaged, and that’s where I spend personally a fair bit of time, is making sure that we’re listening and feeding back our experience,” Beeson says. “Because I think we’re in a unique position where we’ve had a chance to do different seamless initiatives, in the Caribbean, in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Australia. That’s given us the chance to look at different privacy regulations and different security protocols, and make sure we see as well what the response from travelers is, and how we can make sure that’s updated and sent back into the industry.”

Canu says that in addition building state laws for data transfer into systems to support ‘privacy by design,’ there are ISO biometric standards and ICAO standards for data capture, with IATA looking to build interoperability between coexisting systems.

“It can be challenging sometimes if not impossible to transfer biometric data so One ID is looking at several options including customer-centric approaches or government as ID-provider,” she explains. “Both remove the need for airlines to play the middle man and transfer biometrics. In the latter case, when airports/local platform exchange the biometric information they may send a ‘biometric template’ not the full biometric capture.”

Work remains to assure the public that adequate privacy measures are in place, particularly if incidents of scandalous corporate behavior support the argument that stakeholders are not up to enforcing their own rules. Ultimately, however, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Almost three in four airports and airlines are currently investing in biometrics, or planning to do so.

Stein, like Hutchinson, reports that people in the airport industry have realized the technology’s potential.

“Now the big push is really on how to maximize the existing infrastructure and start to make that shift from trials and experimentation to full enterprise adoption and network-wide rollout. I think we’ll start to see more and more of those over the coming year,” Stein predicts.

Motivated stakeholder need not take a long time to roll out deployments, as Stein notes that JetBlue’s 2017 deployment launched in June, despite being the first of its kind, and the project getting underway only that February.

Hutchinson says that while the international market remains something of a patchwork, the adoption process is well underway at many major airports, and others will make announcements or start procurement cycles soon, as early success stories and broad stakeholder awakening build demand.

“There is no doubt that 2019, and to a much larger extent 2020 will be all about biometrics being deployed in airports or aviation environments,” he says.

How long that trend will last, and how many countries it will extend to, remains to be seen. With responsible data controls, acceptance will surely grow as lineups diminish, and the funding questions will be resolved. If air travel is to go up as much and as fast as anticipated, processing times must come down.

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