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The Biometrics battle – how advancements in technology can ready consumers for a new era of airports

May 2009 by Roberto Tavano, Unisys

Airlines and airports globally have already begun to introduce biometric solutions such as fingerprint, iris and handprint scanning, moving away from the trial stage to actual deployments. Across the world, this technology is being used to increase border security, tighten immigration procedures and as a by-product, minimise congestion. But as the business case for these technologies increase, is the average man on the street really ready for them? Roberto Tavano, VP European Security Programmes, Unisys Global Industries, outlines the current market for biometrics in aviation and offers guidelines to those looking to take this route.

It was just a few years ago that we were still debating whether biometric technology offered a stronger security solution than more traditional authentication tools, such as passwords. Now, with the answer to this question a resounding yes, biometrics is gradually being adopted in public and private sectors worldwide as an accurate, reliable and cost efficient way to offer more improved, advanced security surveillance. On the surface, the future for this technology is bright. Recent projections outline that the global biometric market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of more than 20 per cent through 2012 . Biometric technologies like facial recognition and fingerprint and iris scanning are anticipated to account for more than 80 per cent of the global biometric market by 2012.

Within the aviation industry, biometrics can be an incredibly powerful tool. Imagine if there was a way to verify a passenger’s identity “on-the-go” that could be used as a universal characteristic throughout the passengers’ journey. This would allow airlines to run identity checks at the point of check-in, bag-drop and self-service boarding passes. Security would then be able to channel passengers through a known-persons route as they pass through the terminal. Before embarking, immigration could waive through passengers that provide no risk, while identifying those passengers that didn’t fulfil the necessary criteria to make their proposed journey. With this security measure available now, in the not too distant future passengers will be able to roam through the airport at their own pace, reducing congestion at regular bottle-neck points.

Biometrics can offer enhanced security accompanied with increased operational efficiency. Improving the often frantic relationship between border control operations and travellers can be achieved through automated biometric checks, making the process far more efficient and timely for both parties. Re-directing staff to support passengers at processing touch points such as check-in and boarding will significantly reduce any possible area’s of congestion along with reducing staff costs related to the often labour-intensive manual check-in process.

Today, both fingerprint and iris scanning technologies are being deployed in airports and associated organisations, such as Schiphol in the Netherlands, Manchester and Birmingham airports and Heathrow and Gatwick in London. Germany has also run a trial in Frankfurt airport using iris-recognition technology. Schiphol airport in fact was one of the first airports in the world to use biometrics for immigration and border control, while other US airports, for example, are embracing additional applications: Boston airport for passenger check-in for the majority of departure flights and JFK to ensure only verified employees enter restricted zones in the airport. In Charlotte Douglas airport, iris biometrics is being used to ensure the airline crew have suitable facility and security clearance.

Advances in biometric technology have been swift and significant. Project IRIS (Iris Recognition Immigration System) was introduced by the UK government three years ago to provide fast and secure automated clearance through immigration control for certain categories of regular travellers using biometric technology. The system stores and verifies the iris patterns of qualifying travellers, giving watertight confirmation of their identity when they arrive in the UK. However this is considered antiquated in comparison to the latest iris recognition technology now available.

Dynamic capture iris technology enables people to pass through border checkpoints more rapidly while “in motion”, and is seen as the key growth area for the aviation industry. The ability of capturing – unobtrusively and un-intrusively – and of verifying a person’s irises at a distance as the individual moves by a sensor at his/her own pace, represents a paradigm-shift in the way the technology is now being used. Using technology that can identify and capture iris and face patterns whilst on the move enables a high volume of traffic to pass through pre-defined areas at relative high speeds. With the data being processed instantaneously, any passengers not suitable for travel can be identified and dealt with without causing delay to others.

For this technology to be widely adopted, applications may combine multiple biometric solutions with other security or identity measures, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) and smartcard technology. In any real-life application it should be heeded that the most effective approach to security is a holistic one, which assesses all possible security risks, internal and external. Along with the well-known tools such as finger print scanning, more advanced solutions such as voice recognition are also being pursued for commercial development in line with regulation set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Fundamentally, consumers and airlines have the same common goal; to have a secure and swift journey through the airport, from check-in to boarding. By using biometric technology, the airlines can identify and authenticate a specific passenger, associate their baggage and ensure they board the correct flight. This can take much of the labour-intensive task of manually checking-in through the passport office, security checks and boarding checks out of the passenger’s process. The International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) simplifying passenger travel initiative (SPT) has developed an end-to-end process model, dubbed Ideal Process Flow (IPF) that builds on a wholly re-designed airport experience. Applied biometrics can only enhance such far-reaching thinking.

However, the question remains, with seemingly mutual benefits on offer for both the consumer and airport, why does consumer confidence in biometric technology remain relatively low? The fact remains that as the technology advances, the biometrics battle is no longer taking place in the development lab, but rather on a social platform as organisations and suppliers struggle to gain social acceptance of the solutions – a battle that so far, is without a clear winner.

The third bi-annual Unisys Security Index released in November 2008 reveals that consumers across seven European countries (UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Belgium) still prefer to use passwords and pin numbers to verify their identity with banks, government agencies and other organisations – on average 71 and 69 per cent respectively felt this way. As biometric technology has been in use the longest, fingerprint scanning was welcomed by 67 per cent of consumers. Iris scanning would only be welcomed by 54 per cent of European consumers and even lesser known technologies such as voice recognition, facial and palm scanning would be accepted by less than half of consumers. Whilst these figures remain relatively low, they do show promising acceptance for new, more secure yet possibly invasive security checks.

On the one hand it appears counterintuitive that consumers are rejecting technologies that offer enhanced security of their personal identity. In the same survey more than half of consumers said that they were very or extremely concerned about other people obtaining and using their credit card, debit card or bank account details without their knowledge or consent. Surely improved security technology that is based on a person’s own unique characteristics would be welcomed!

Concerns expressed by consumers around the adoption of biometric technology seem to be three-fold – informational privacy; physical privacy and data safety. The most significant informational privacy concerns relate to the threat of information the biometrics solution can collect. If the system is used at more than one location or the data is used in a way other than it was originally intended, a person’s movements may be tracked. Many opposers of biometrics contend that this is inevitable – the ‘big brother’ syndrome – and it is a widespread fear among consumers in Europe and globally.

The use of biometrics may also raise physical privacy concerns. Firstly there is a social stigma associated with some biometrics - fingerprinting of course is largely associated with law enforcement. There are also those that feel there is a possibility of actual harm to the participants by the technology itself and finally that the devices used to obtain or “read” the biometric may be unhygienic.

The final area of anxiety around data safety is not limited only to consumers, but also the organisations exploring the use of the technology. How can a person’s biometric data, once collected, be protected? On the one hand biometric data is far safer than passwords and pin-codes. It is based on unique personal characteristics and as such is virtually impossible to fake. However, where biometrics are authenticated remotely, that is, by transmission of data from a sensor to a centralised data repository, a hacker might be able to steal, copy, or reverse-engineer the biometric. This misappropriation could also come about through insider misuse such as a rogue employee. Without proper safeguards, files could be misappropriated and transactions could be performed using other people’s identities and a security breach of biometric data would be far more damaging than that of a password, which can be changed easily with one phone call.

So, while these technologies are clearly appealing, the common element among consumers is a psychological fear of biometric technology and an unwillingness to adopt something new. This is based on a lack of trust and a severe knowledge gap. These are areas that have to be actively addressed by organisations that are looking to implement biometrics into their day to day business operations. Without doing so consumers will continue to be the greatest barrier to its widespread adoption. There’s little doubt that eventually, biometrics will gain its foothold in Europe and globally, but it is important that it does not do so in the face of widespread consumer resistance.

The ideal solution should prove seamless for passengers to use, with no or limited instructions required. It would also maintain people flow and high-volume throughput throughout the process, to minimise disruption. It would be able to process large numbers of people with a small number of systems. In any real-life application it should be heeded that the most effective approach to security is a holistic one, which assesses all possible security risks, internal and external. The main barrier to the adoption and advancement of biometric technology is public readiness. As organisations reach out to the public to address their concerns we will increasingly see the application of this technology to enhance people’s privacy, convenience and choice in all areas of life.

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