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‘Facial recognition is the easy part’: digital travel ID pilot results are in

DTC technology state of the art but infrastructure not yet ready
‘Facial recognition is the easy part’: digital travel ID pilot results are in

Air travel has been getting more complicated. From security and passport checks to special documents such as COVID-19 certificates, passengers are required to carefully prepare before flying out on their vacation. The number of planes and passengers has also increased, putting airports under pressure to shorten waiting times. Upcoming travel authorization schemes such as the European Union’s Entry-Exit System (EES) are expected to bring even more complexity to our holiday getaways and business trips.

A solution that could cut through some of this complexity is Digital Travel Credentials (DTCs).

Europe and Canada have just completed the world’s first transatlantic Digital Travel Credential pilot using the DTC-1 model, allowing Belgian, Dutch and Canadian passport holders to skip through the lines with an app that allows biometric verification with a selfie.

“The big challenge is that the total infrastructure is not yet ready and we’re still in the early stages,” says Nick van Straten, program director for biometrics and Clearance at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. “But what we all know is that facial recognition is the easy part and that the algorithms and the technology are really state of the art.”

Van Straten shared the results of the DTC pilot speaking at a webinar hosted by Border Security Report.

The pilot was conducted by a Dutch consortium co-funded by the European Commission. The public-private partnership involves several entities, including the Dutch Ministry of Justice & Security, KLM, Transport Canada and Idemia, which provided the biometric verification technology.

From a border management perspective, the DTC works, says Lisette Looren de Jong, program manager of Innovation Border Management at the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security. The digital document helped cut border crossing time to about 10 to 14 seconds with the fastest crossing taking only around six seconds. The trials were conducted at the Montréal–Trudeau International Airport and Amsterdam Airport Schipol, where airport authorities installed new tap-and-go eGates.

“It resulted in significant time gains at border crossings”, she says. “This could really be a game changer and a very important start for a new and innovative border management process in the Netherlands.”

Whether the travelers will embrace the new digital credentials, however, is not yet clear.  The pilot invited over 10,000 passengers with over 1000 passengers engaging. However, only half ended up going through the process.

Speakers attributed this result to the fact that the pilot lasted only three months. But some passengers have also found it challenging to participate due to the high standard for security and data privacy.

“Towards the future, we need to find a balance between IT security and data privacy, but also enabling the customers to easily enroll,” says van Straten.

One of the positive results is that 85 percent of the passengers enrolled for flight were able to successfully board.

During the pilot, travelers were invited to download the DTC app created by the Dutch government from the Android store and verify themselves from home. Through the machine-readable passport (MRZ) the age and nationality of the passengers are verified and the chip of the electronic Machine Readable Travel Document (eMRTD) is also checked.

At the next step, the passengers were asked to take a selfie video for biometric comparison. The DTC is then stored locally on the phone and stays there for the next 72 hours. The timeframe is limited as the pilot project seeks to uphold data minimization, explains Peter Guezen, project manager at Idemia Smart Identity. In the future DTCs may be reused.

The passenger still needs to enroll for its specific flight or border control. After that, they can pass through KLM eGates which will check their faces and match them to the information in the DTC. Finally, the passenger is asked to tap their passport on the eGate terminal and the gates open.

In the future, the DTC experiment will have to tackle many more questions, including those about data storage and processing in compliance with the EU AI Act and the GDPR. Digitalization of passport verification needs to be looked at holistically, from legislation to the role of airlines and even what kind of information should passports hold.

“If you talk about interoperability and how will this work throughout the process at every gate, then we really have a lot of work to do before we get scaled this up,” adds van Straten.

EIC session explores the future of travel with digital travel credentials

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