Tech talk: face value

Is facial recognition about to replace check-in and passport control?

“Passengers really seem to like it… big smiles, they enjoy it,” says Sean Farrell, portfolio director for government solutions at air transport communications specialist Sita, describing a new boarding experience.

What’s not to like? The airline passenger simply takes a fun selfie and congratulations – you can board the aircraft.

Sita broke new ground in the summer by embracing a new era of facial recognition, helping airline Jetblue trial biometric self-boarding. The partners also worked with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) matching the passenger’s face on the Jetblue app to the passport, visa or immigration photo that the CBP holds.

It’s a process that has the potential to save customers precious time at the gate, and potentially other areas – and it comes at the same time as Apple launches the iPhone X, which includes a facial recognition camera.

Farrell believes that the decreasing cost of biometric technology, combined with increasing familiarity via consumer tools, such as iPhone X, will drive more widespread adoption of facial recognition.

Many airports already scan faces at immigration, while British Airways uses facial recognition at the main security-screening area at Heathrow’s T5, and passengers are able to board a plane without showing documents. However, the Jetblue trial marks the first time the US government has become involved – and it’s keen to do more. With more than 1 billion e-passports, which contain face and fingerprint information, it’s no surprise really.

“There’s a lot of action in the US, and in the past six months the government has been offering biometric services, and not just for security,” says Farrell, who adds that since the 9/11 attacks, airport security has become much stricter. “There were more identity checks, which prevented the roll-out of self-service,” he recalls. “The beachhead is immigration, but now facial recognition will expand out to the rest of the areas, such as self-service bag drops, or even the lounge.”

It is these other areas that could pique the interest of TMCs. At the airport, facial recognition is one area where TMCs could “differentiate” themselves, according to Farrell, by offering premium services.

Meanwhile, with Google Glass set to make a comeback, airport or airline staff could scan the customer’s face, with the Glass screen bringing up details of the passenger, including information on their preferences, or any past complaints.

Hotels have already used facial recognition to create personalised guest experiences, says Charlotte Lamp Davies, vice-president at DataArt UK. “Some solutions help identify guests right after they enter a hotel, and this provides several opportunities for hotel staff from providing special offerings to a more personalised service,” she says. “We’ve been working with face recognition technology for several years, and we’ve delivered projects in the entertainment, IoT [internet of things] and hospitality sectors. Most were executed within R&D initiatives initially for companies keen to enhance client and guest experiences across their verticals.”

Profiling concerns
However, as with all emerging technologies, questions surround its use. An ongoing civil rights debate is how do people ensure they are not being scanned at every moment? In the commercial sector, how do individuals control their identity, so they are not being profiled without their permission and targeted with adverts? And with biometric authentication an automated process, is the removal of the human element a concern?

Ben Virdee-Chapman is chief design officer and head of product at Kairos, a technology company that specialises in face recognition. He argues the widening debate on privacy is positive. The firm, founded in 2012 and based in Miami, covers three areas: identity, emotion and demographics. It works with cruise lines on tagging and boarding technology, with marketing and advertising agencies, and film production companies, including Legendary Pictures. 

Virdee-Chapman says there is a stigma that facial recognition is just for surveillance and security. “At a federal level, Kairos is on committees and regulatory commissions in Washington debating what regulation should look like. The US government is keen to promote commerce, but it is also looking at privacy. It wants to strike a balance, create industries around the technology, and make sure it’s ethical,” he says.

Who owns biometric data?
There are wider implications regarding identity. Who owns your biometric data? On the iPhone X, such data is stored on the device itself, and not in the cloud. The phone’s technology is very advanced – perhaps explaining the £999 price tag – and unlikely to be tricked by a photograph. Virdee-Chapman says: “Apple designed the software and hardware in harmony, and it’s absolutely a one-off. It’s novel because Apple is aware of the challenges in performing to high levels of accuracy.”

There are several blockchain-based companies emerging that aim to give users greater control of their identity. “Biometric is the key that opens it up; blockchain is the way you manage it,” says Sita’s Farrell. One company, Vchain, won investment from IAG’s global accelerator scheme Hangar 51 last year. Vchain uses blockchain technology to provide a digital identity which, it claims, means passengers can be ‘ready to fly’ before arriving at the airport. Vchain also says this contributes to IATA’s One Identity concept for “safe, secure and simpler passenger identification”.

“Think of these platforms like a smart wallet,” Farrell says. “They use technology like blockchain to determine how that information is shared with immigration. It protects people’s identities. We’re going to see big developments in finance first, and airlines will take advantage of that.”

Meanwhile, Sita is trialling ‘Smart Path’ technology at Brisbane airport with Air New Zealand. Passengers present their details at a self-service kiosk to check-in, and their biometrics are captured. Later, their faces are scanned at an automated boarding gate to access the aircraft.

For Farrell, this is the start of the end-to-end journey. “Passengers prefer it, companies prefer it, and credentials are linked back to the e-passport,” he says.

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