Say goodbye to the passport and hello to digital travel credentials
By Jon Payne, Director of Business Development and Strategic Alliances for Identity Verification, Entrust
Biometric identification enables greater convenience and tighter security across a wide range of use cases — from mobile apps to payment processing. But one day soon, biometrics will also usher us into a passportless future.
Companies like Entrust use biometrics to power a paperless, seamless travel experience. Digital travel credentials (DTC), a form of digital identity, have been piloted at global transportation hubs including Eurostar high-speed rail service and the Canadian Border Services Agency — with more to follow.
A DTC allows travelers to securely share identity data from their mobile devices before they arrive at checkpoints. Border officials can then authenticate passengers’ identities via a facial scan on arrival.
DTCs and facial biometrics are on their way to streamlining cross-border experiences, helping travelers and border officials alike. While DTCs won’t be widely available for several years, governments and travelers need to prepare for a future where physical passports are a thing of the past.
A better way to travel
What’s the worst part of a trip abroad? For many of us, it’s the journey to get there. We need to get to the travel hub hours before departure, wait in a seemingly endless security line, run through terminals to make our boarding time and search for documents from the bottom of our bags. And that’s assuming we didn’t accidentally leave our documentation at home or lose it along the way.
The end of many of those hassles is in sight. Physical passports and extensive identification protocols have long been a necessary evil for safe, secure cross-border movement. We needed to have border officials around to match faces to documents because previous generations of machine learning models weren’t accurate enough at verifying identities without significant inconvenience. But now, facial recognition technology has progressed to the point where it’s as accurate as fingerprinting.
There’s still work to do to prepare fully digital credentials for widespread rollout — both technologically and psychologically. Governments and the public need to trust and accept facial matching as a method of identification to make travel credentials work. But once conditions allow, DTC technology promises to change travel for the better.
So, how did we get here?
Data protection and biometric technology had to come a long way to make DTCs possible. The first breakthrough was the creation of the ePassport, which has provided a digital identity for travelers through biometric data on electronic chips since its launch in 2006. The ePassport, which is currently issued by 164 countries, serves as the basis for DTCs. In the near future, passport agencies will use the ePassport chip to create a digital abstract that travelers can access on their mobile devices.
However, two further developments needed to happen before fully digital biometric credentials became possible. The first was advancements in facial recognition technology, which can now match faces to photos many times more accurately than a border agent. The second was travel credential guidelines, which finally came in 2020 from the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) publication of DTC standards. Those standards gave enterprise software providers the parameters they needed to push full steam ahead on DTCs.
ICAO sees DTC technology progressing in three types. The first type takes biometric data from ePassports and creates a secure, shareable version for a smartphone, with physical passports remaining necessary as a backup. The second type will be issued directly by passport agencies in parallel with passport books. The third and final type ditches traditional and ePassports altogether for an entirely digital, biometrically powered form of identification.
Although the second and third types of DTCs are still some time away, tests with type one DTCs are happening now.
What does a passportless future look like?
DTCs in any form hold several advantages over passport booklets. Travelers no longer need to deal with the nightmare of not having an accepted form of international identification if they lose their passport. And DTC holders have the option to send their data — both biographic and biometric — to government and travel service providers before travel, if they choose to do so.
The travel experience itself also becomes a relative cakewalk compared to the current system. Hours-long security and immigration checks get cut to a fraction of the time as airline and border agents identify travelers faster and more accurately than they ever could by manually matching faces to photos.
At the travel hubs where Entrust has piloted type-one DTCs, the initial tests have delivered solid results. Travelers say their trips were much smoother and they didn’t spend nearly as much time in lines. Meanwhile, travel officials see less congestion, use their resources more effectively and have an easier time verifying identities. Everyone is reaping the rewards.
But despite the benefits, governments, travel providers and transportation hubs still need to buy into biometrics technology and invest in infrastructure to support DTC usage. From there, it’s up to travelers to accept DTC as a safe form of identification.
Privacy concerns surrounding biometric technology are natural. But DTC creators are held to strict industry and governmental privacy standards that will ensure users stay in control of their personal information. Still, education for the public is crucial to demonstrate that DTCs aren’t for surveillance — only for better international movement.
The sky’s the limit for DTC
DTC technology is going to revolutionize how people travel around the world — providing seamless movement that raises the bar for convenience, efficiency and security. While there’s a long road ahead to roll out DTCs, enterprise software providers like Entrust are proving this technology is no longer the stuff of science fiction. DTCs are preparing for takeoff, and it’s time to get global travelers on board.
About the author
Jon Payne is the Director of Business Development and Strategic Alliances for Identity Verification at Entrust. Payne is a subject matter expert in immigration policy and operations and a former civil servant at UK Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.