Biometrics: The long and winding road…


12 April 2023



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For Issue 1 2023 of International Airport Review, Ian Law, Chief Digital Transformation Officer for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), gives an overview of the use of biometrics within airports and what is has taken to get to this point, as well looking ahead to the future.

Not too long AGO, any conversation about seamless, frictionless, and hassle‑free traveller experience was liberally sprinkled throughout with mentions of biometrics. Biometric technology would allow passengers to whisk through any airport, onto any flight and out the other end without the need to reach for a passport, a driver’s license or even a boarding pass. But times have changed.

The once could-do-no-wrong answer to the industry’s woes has, like many aviation technologies, evolved through trial and error to fill specific cracks in a sector with as many different needs and standards as it has destinations. So, where is biometrics today? And does its winding trajectory in recent years shed any light as to where it is headed next?

Biometric technology’s Satya Yuga

Not too long ago, circa 2014, biometric technology had shot to prominence in the industry as the solution to the most intractable friction points in the traveller’s journey. Vendors’ cartoon videos extolling the virtues of biometrics showed healthy, happy, slender parents shepherding their obedient offspring though the airport, opening doors, dropping off bags, bypassing long security queues, buying duty free (yes!) and boarding flights, all with a simple smile to strategically placed biometric cameras. The system did the rest. It truly was biometric technology’s golden era. Full of promise.

A series of high‑profile hacking events, though in other sectors, still caused anxiety in boardrooms about big data bases of private information.”

Biometrics in travel was nothing new. It had been used for years, but mostly passively. Biometrics were collected, largely by immigration agencies, often fingerprints, but were rarely used in real-time identity adjudication. Its primary propose was to simply store a record.

New technologies created new hope for biometrics in travel. Faster and accurate digital camera technologies, higher bandwidth and infinitely scalable cloud compute platforms and more secure encryption algorithms, all contributed to revitalising the potential for biometric technology to alleviate travel bottlenecks at scale. The value of real-time verification could not be understated. It was a game-changer.

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