A version of this story was published in October 2012 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine.
There’s no doubt about it. Look around the world these days and you see biometrics everywhere: iris scanners used to keep tabs on prisoners on probation in the US; fingerprint verification in laptops and cash machines as far afield as Vietnam and South Africa. Even the world’s top athletes had to submit to face and fingerprint scans in order to take part in this year’s London Olympic Games.
But nowhere is the use of biometrics more prevalent, and more contentious, than in border control.
A decade ago biometrics at airports barely existed. Now the issuing of e-passports – travel documents containing a degree of biometric data (usually a photograph containing biometric markers and, in the case of the EU, fingerprints too) — is the default in most countries around the world.
Many major airports boast e-gates (or SmartGates as they are known in Australia and New Zealand) that use facial recognition to speed travelers through the security process. Facial recognition compares the digital photo stored on the e-passport with images taken by cameras at the gate, noting discrepancies in such things as bone structure, nose length, and the distance between your eyes. E-gates at Manchester and London Stansted already accommodate the latest generation of passports and plans are underway to install them at all five Heathrow terminals.
On top of this there are myriad trials going on testing out new, and sometimes frankly bizarre-sounding, methods of biometric technology that include avatars that monitor speech patterns to detect lying, a device that recognizes a person from the way he walks and brain scanning equipment.
Reading this you might be forgiven for thinking the biometric future is a fait accompli but as any traveler knows, aside from e-passports and a smattering of e-gates, security in most terminals around the world looks relatively unchanged from a decade ago and is still presided over by humans, not machines.
Jean Salomon, who runs JSalomon Consulting, his own border control security consultancy, has been in the business for 20 years. He said that there was a “quantum leap” forward in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks which helped usher in e-passport, mainly as a result of the intense lobbying of the International Civil Aviation Organization. But the momentum gained after the terrorist attacks has not sustained, he said.
“These days most of the booming and money-making biometrics business activity is centered on criminal data bases,” Salomon said. “The focus has been on developing biometrics for security reasons only, with no real intent to develop its associated seamlessness counterpart in airport facilitation.”
As a result he said a number of small and medium-sized biometric start-ups have folded in recent years and the production of the hardware used in biometric systems at border controls worldwide has concentrated in the hands of just three companies. These are the French firm Morpho, the U.S-based 3M Cogent and the global electronics giant NEC. All these companies have a stake in e-passport programs, in national biometric ID’s and in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the technology used in biometric fingerprint scanners.
A number of other businesses exist to help integrate these technologies for specific airport’s needs. They include Liverpool-based Human Recognition Systems (HRS).
Jim Slevin, Business Unit Manager at HRS, is keenly aware that the biometrics market remains a relatively small part of airport security. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change any time soon, he said.
“A fully automated border solution may not be accommodated in mine or the reader’s lifetime,” Slevin said. “This is because the level of deployable artificial intelligence is not yet ready to deal with the complexity of situations that we, as humans, can create or deal with.”
Slevin said the take up of biometrics was also hindered by those in control of borders who were neither “technology centric, or indeed technology comfortable.”
He said the adoption of a fully automated system was dependent on completely rethinking the processes by which airports monitor the movement of passengers.
With this in mind HRS trialled a technology at Manchester Airport in 2010 capable of recognising passengers’ irises as they walked around the terminal, thanks to a remote camera set up in a security area. The camera took a photograph at a distance eliminating the need for the individual to stop and stare into the recognition camera.
The technology, called Biometrics In Motion, raises the possibility of airport security checks of the future taking place as the passenger moves around the terminal via the use of remote cameras, thus obviating the need for security gates and making for a much more fluid movement of travelers.
Aware that some travelers are put off by the idea of staring into cameras or pressing their palms onto fingerprint scanners, the security industry wants to find a fast and non-invasive biometric technology that will go over well with the public.
There have been a number of trials both in Europe and America of devices using gait recognition, a system which takes account of the unique way people walk and which, it is hoped – like Biometrics in Motion – can eliminate bottlenecks by reducing queuing times. Although most acknowledge the technology is not a significant enough marker on its own, gait recognition could be used in collaboration with other biometrics.
EU researchers in Greece, under the auspices of the Humabio (Human Monitoring and Authentication using Biodynamic Indicators and Behaviourial Analysis) project, conducted pilots using gait recognition as well as a number of other nascent technologies.
Security experts are moving increasingly towards developing systems that use a variety of physiological characteristics to identify people, largely because this lessens the chance of mistaken identity. The Humabio pilots included devices that distinguished individuals by brain patterns and heart rhythms.
The risk of relying too much on one physiological marker was brought home in Manchester in February last year when a couple managed to pass through facial recognition scanners using each other’s passports. The incident, which led to the scanner’s being temporarily withdrawn from service, was as noteworthy for the stir it caused in the press as anything else.
The reaction is symptomatic of just how divisive the use of biometrics in border control remains.
To their supporters, biometrics signal a brave new world of sleek efficiency and an important line of defence in the ongoing war against global terrorism. To their detractors they are further evidence of the Orwellian tendencies of modern states to increase surveillance of their citizens as well as leaving large swathes of the population at risk from identity theft.
Media debates about the ethics of biometrics can often drown out more prescient questions about whether the technology is actually effective in making airport travel quicker, safer and more convenient.
Facial recognition, for example, is not considered to be a very robust technology by many security experts, who say its continued application is down to the fact that the widespread availability of passport photos means it’s easy to get hold of the raw data.
As Jim Slevin points out, in the popular media biometrics are frequently compared with their predecessor, which in most cases means humans, and found wanting. In these comparisons humans are often considered to be 100 percent accurate and any error on the part of the biometric replacement shows it not matching up to its human counterpart.
Yet this suggests humans are infallible, and there have been more than enough security breaches down the years for us to know different.
Slevin calls this tendency, “the ex-partner in the marriage” syndrome.
“Through thorough mathematical and empirical data collection we have a very exact understanding of how well biometric systems perform in terms of false positive matching,” said Slevin. “In almost all circumstances the same transparency in the relationship between aviation and human operators is not available.
“The general publics’ perception of biometrics in airports will usually be through popular media; and rarely does one expect a story with a strapline of ‘Biometric System Implemented At XYZ Airport Without Issues And Performing In Line With Expectations’ to make headline news.”
As for another issue about biometrics commonly raised in the media, that they increase the risk of ID fraud by placing more of our sensitive personal details on databases that could potentially be hacked in to, Jean Salomon believes this concern is somewhat over egged. Salomon said that in reality there was greater risk of ID fraud from paper documents, such as birth certificates.
He said that details kept on databases associated with e-passports had much more rigorous security — they were systematically stored and electronically encrypted – whereas in most countries no such electronic backup existed for birth certificates, making them much easier to forge.
Even so, Salomon said inevitable mistakes would ensure that “civil liberties organizations will grow more white hair; simply because of nature’s inherent fondness for entropy.”
In the meantime, love it or hate it, biometric technology continues to advance and while the fully automated airport may be a long way further off than many advocates had first predicted, there’s little doubt that it’s coming, and that the sci-fi fantasies of the past will become the reality of the air travel experience of the future.