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Let's face it! Biometric identity is going main stream...

Published on  14 September by Jim Peters , Chief Technology Officer
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With Apple’s new iPhone X facial biometric identity verification system, we will see a lot more people using their face to validate who they are, but what does that mean for security at airports?

iPhone XWith the announcement of the iPhone X’s (ten!) facial biometric identity verification system, we will see a lot more people using their face to validate who they are by using it to unlock their phone.   By allowing app developers to use this identity verification system, applications can now ask you to verify who you are with your face. That can be for things like account login, financial transactions, and anything needing user verification.  As more and more people use the system, assuming it works well, as most Apple stuff does, we should see a greater awareness and acceptance by the air-traveling public to using their face to verify their identity when they travel.

Last year, SITA Lab developed a prototype with ShoCard to show how a facial biometric could be used and secured using blockchain technology. More recently, the Lab has been working with the U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) and JetBlue to trial facial biometrics on international flights from Boston Airport. This has proved hugely popular with JetBlue passengers who are happy to ‘Board in a Snap’.  SITA has also done trials of its end-to-end facial biometric solution, Smart Path, in Doha and Brisbane airports. The overall results have been positive so far, even if the passengers still see it as a novelty to use their face for boarding a plane. 

These research efforts, PoCs and trials have been exploring both the underlying technology and the associated data flows and processes.  Privacy is always a concern, as people are worried about who has their picture and what are they doing with it, especially, without their permission.   In the ShoCard trial, like the iPhone X, the facial biometric never leaves the phone.  In the case of the JetBlue trial, the picture taken to compare it against the one CBP has on file is not stored or saved, but is thrown away after the check is complete.

Woman holds iPhone X on beachThis privacy issue becomes more difficult though if you want to go through multiple airports and countries on the same biometric.  Does that mean every country and airport needs to have your facial biometric on file?  A scary thought for many.   One option could be to look at how we could use the picture on your iPhone X to go through security and board the plane.  However, in past conversations with Apple, when asked about the possibility of incorporating biometric verification on the phone into the airport security process, the answer has been “iPhone security is designed to protect you from other people, not other people from you”. Clearly the iPhone isn’t designed to detect and prevent security risks from getting on planes.

SITA is working with IATA and its One Identity initiative to come together with airlines and industry stakeholders to look at how facial biometric interoperability between airports can be achieved, while respecting privacy.  It looks like the timing for that is pretty good, as with the rollout of the iPhone X, I think we can now assume a near-term future where facial recognition is “expected” for identity verification. 

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