Biometric Technology in Airports: Is it here to stay?

Advances in technology, scalability, and improved mobile devices are now enabling use cases that were previously thought impossible. The airport environment is a particularly interesting market for biometrics as the use cases splits into two distinct threads – even though they are very much intertwined. On one hand we have over eight million people travelling world-wide, every day, for business or pleasure who are seeking an enhanced travel experience. On the other hand we have a dynamic, ever changing, universal border security environment which is demanding streamlined border control processes and enhanced border protection technologies to support international and domestic security efforts. Automated border control processes which accurately confirm the identity of travellers by the use of self-service biometric touch points which offer quick, reliable authentication of each passengers travel documents, and guarantees that the passenger holding it is the rightful owner, by matching the passport chip’s photo with a live photo, for example, are now becoming common place at many international airports.

The term ‘biometrics’ is derived from the Greek words ‘bio’ meaning life and ‘metrics’ meaning to measure. Although automated biometric systems have only become available over the last few decades, due mainly to significant advances in the field of computer processing, there is no doubt that the technology is now here to stay. The International Standardisation Organisation (ISO) defines biometric recognition as “automated recognition of individuals based on their biological and behavioural characteristics”, and biometric characteristics as “biological and behavioural characteristics of an individual from which distinguishing, repeatable biometric features can be extracted for the purpose of biometric recognition”.

Many of these new automated techniques however, are based on ideas that were originally conceived hundreds, even thousands of years ago. The process stems from a social context of belonging to a group or family where associates rely on their memory to recognise peculiarities such as appearance, voice and shared knowledge. Recognition identifies children, friends and foe, and is inherent in all species. This simple task has become more challenging as populations increased and as more convenient methods of travel introduced many new individuals into once small communities. Most identification processes are associated with the collection of physical data. Our eyes, and to some extent our hands and ears, collect the data; the brain processes the data collected and attempts to make a match with stored information. When we look at another face our eyes scan the face for distinguishing characteristics. The more prominent the characteristics the easier it will be to remember that person. Traditionally, identification has been based on physical attributes such as eye colour, hair and skin colour, scars, birthmarks, tattoos, height, and weight for example. Thumb prints in wax, letters of introduction, signatures, references from known associates, and birth certificates are traditional forms of identification and are still used today. As identity moved from a social context towards being an economic requirement the process became more complex. Names and surname were used from 1066 and in 1538, during the reign of Henry VIII, parish priests started to keep registers of births, deaths and marriages. In 1870 Alphonse Bertillon, clerk at the Prefecture of Police in Paris, produced the first method of identifying individual criminals by fingerprints, and in 1892 Englishman Sir Francis Galton proposed biometric indices for facial profiles. Other methods such as social behaviour, code names, biodynamic chips, tags and monitoring anklets are also used for identification purposes.

As the human population, economic community and threat environment has developed and become more globalised so too has the complexity surrounding the issue of identity and its appropriate management. Birth certificates, naturalisation papers, passports, and other government issued documents prove citizenship, but are not enough with the sophistication of forgery in documentation and identity related crime. Positive and reliable identification of humans is now a much more important topic in most government and commercial organisations and one which is intensifying. With increased emphasis on security, there is a growing and urgent need to identify and authenticate people both locally and remotely on a routine basis in a more robust manner.
With the advent of computing power these methods are now traditionally characterised into three groups; knowledge based – secret information that only you know, such as a passwords and PINs; token based – something you have in your possession such as a key or token; and biometric information – an individual’s unique physiological or behavioural characteristics including face, fingerprint, palm print, voice, gait and signature. In knowledge based systems users tend to choose passwords and PINs which are guessable and I’m sure we’re all guilty of writing down our passwords, storing them in wallets or near our computer, using the same password or PIN for different systems and sharing passwords. With token based systems keys and cards may be lost, stolen, forgotten, duplicated and shared.