Most of us who use smartphones are accustomed to unlocking them with a fingerprint, but soon biometrics will allow us to do a whole lot more on a day-to-day basis.
As of 2019, Mastercard users will be able to use a fingerprint or facial recognition instead of PINs and passwords and, if the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show is anything to go by, we’ll soon be relying on biometrics to access our cars too.
Biometrics are paving the way for a more convenient future — imagine no more searching around for lost car keys! — but our fingerprints can only tell people so much, which might be why RFID implants are growing in popularity. Could they eventually replace passports?
Biometrics as a Revenue Driver
Biometrics may have really taken off in the last five years, but the technology isn’t new. Alastair Partington, Founder and Co-CEO of biometrics and identity-technology company Tascent, says airports were the early adopters. Amsterdam Schiphol’s iris-scanning Privium program for frequent flyers and Heathrow’s miSense fingerprinting kiosks were installed at airports to enable fast-track immigration in the early- and mid-2000s — years before the first iPhone launched.
It’s only more recently that the airlines themselves have picked up the mantle. “Airports and airlines have begun to jointly innovate with offerings such as biometric bag-drop and biometric boarding, increasingly connecting the passenger journey by offering an integrated experience across multiple touchpoints,” Partington explains.
That’s because both parties are now looking at how the technology impacts revenue generation. “Biometric authentication provides the ability to automate identity verification, which can result in dramatically shortened queues, with travelers shopping, dining, working or relaxing, rather than waiting in line,” Partington says.
“This becomes a driver of commerce, rather than a cost center,” he continues. “Ultimately, like many other technologies, as adoption of biometrics crosses the line into an ROI-driven discussion, the technology is staged to proliferate greatly.”
Many Passengers View Biometrics Favorably
It helps that passengers seem to prefer it too. According to IATA’s 2017 Global Passenger Survey, 64 percent of respondents chose biometric identification as their preferred traveling token over paper documents or their mobile phones, with 72 percent of passengers interested in the idea of self-boarding. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they’d like to have boarding tokens replaced with biometric recognition.
Many in the industry envisage a future dominated by “single-token travel” — that is, a single digital record containing passengers’ biometric and travel data record — but Partington believes this won’t ever be fully realized across the globe. “Multi-factor and/or multimodal biometric authentication will be critical when considering international, large-scale solutions that empower efficient travel for the widest range of people,” he asserts. In short: A diversity of people, environments, use cases and security requirements will demand different approaches to authentication.
For instance, he points out, some environments may be suited to 1:1 facial recognition with an ePassport, while tokenless iris recognition may be more appropriate in other cases. Others still may need standard ticketing and/or identity documents. A multi-factor, multimodal approach will meet this breadth of demands in a way a single token cannot.
“Airlines and airports are increasingly adopting enhanced identity mechanisms. Incorporating biometric technologies into the seatback that can consistently recognize and authenticate a passenger is the way to do it.”
Product Research Manager for Panasonic Avionics
We May all Become Cyborgs
Of course, with an iris scan, fingerprint or facial recognition, there’s a deeply unsettling question about what happens if that information were to get hacked or compromised. You’ve only got one face and one set of fingerprints.
That’s why RFID chips are becoming a go-to option. A growing number of people are opting to have these chips implanted under their skin as a form of biometric authentication. In fact, the technology is already being used by travel organizations such as Swedish rail company SJ.
Jowan Österlund is the founder of Biohax International, which carries out the implants for SJ. He looks at it as a way for companies to save both time and physical resources. “This is not just about moving a little bit faster in the line. In the long run, we need to think about how we can optimize our interactions with our digital environment,” he says.
One passenger even used the technology to get through the boarding gate for an SAS flight.
Österlund and many others in the biometrics business believe an implant is the most secure location for personal data. Stewart Pope of consulting and risk-management firm Biometix notes, “In practice, an RFID implant should be relatively secure as it does not have a public connection like a mobile, and works on short range near-field communication (NFC) technology. It is also very unlikely that an attacker could physically take the RFID implant from a person.”
However, Pope says new technology is never 100 percent fail-safe. He suggests people could potentially clone RFID implants, though it’s worth bearing in mind that an implant can be altered and replaced — unlike a biological feature.
Some Challenges to Widespread Adoption Remain
Deceptive techniques can be used to confuse biometric detectors. In biometric speak, “artifacts” refer to items which can be used to fool a biometric system, explains Pope. Ultimately, this means biometrics alone aren’t the complete solution.
“A very active area of research in recent years has focused on liveness detection and detection of artifacts — something we call suspicious presentation detection,” Pope continues. “Systems are vulnerable when relying on biometric matching alone, so there is now a strong focus on implementing liveness and suspicious presentation detection to mitigate some of these potential vulnerabilities.”
A good example is where the Windows Hello facial recognition was successfully bypassed in 2017 with a photograph printed on paper, Pope points out. Microsoft has since released additional updates that feature enhanced anti-spoofing techniques to detect this type of attack. Still, some degree of supervision is required to thwart bad actors. “An unsupervised attacker has significantly more opportunity to bypass a system, which is why these automated border control systems always require human monitoring,” says Pope.
Still, Partington believes biometrics can make the passenger journey smoother. Last year, his company, Tascent, partnered with Panasonic with a view to expanding the use of biometric passenger identification throughout the passenger journey. He predicts biometrics integrated with IFE systems will drive effortless personalization, payments and even inflight immigration.
“Airlines and airports are increasingly adopting enhanced identity mechanisms,” says Steve Sizelove, Product Research Manager for Panasonic Avionics. Incorporating biometric technologies into the seatback that can consistently recognize and authenticate a passenger is the way to do it, Sizelove continues. This can be accomplished by enabling self-service, and reducing friction and passenger stress, at the seat and throughout the travel experience.
Integrating the technology into IFE systems has its challenges, however. “First, biometric authentication is sensor-based, which will likely necessitate hardware upgrades to the IFE system,” Partington notes. “Second, travelers will need to be provided with a compelling opt-in process that makes biometrics desirable and value-driven. Third, in the case of inflight immigration, policy and air-to-ground processes will need to evolve.”
The opt-in process seems like the easiest problem to solve; a free drink inflight or 15 minutes of free Wi-Fi could be all it takes to entice the value exchange-led millennial generation. In the end, it will be regulators who slow the aviation industry down, but with such a big shift happening on the ground, they’ll soon be forced to take notice — and fast.
Seamless travel is on the horizon, and aviation innovators working to reduce the friction of conventional travel are poised to take advantage of this fast moving technology.