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Live trials of fingerprint and facial recognition systems at airport border controls have demonstrated the potential to provide the passenger with a more seamless travel experience. But is the technology quick and reliable enough and will data protection law prove an insurmountable barrier in some countries? Gary Mason reports from the Biometrics 2015 conference in London

Security guardTo what extent can pre-travel enrolment passenger information schemes and e-gate technology speed up the border control process at airports?

Emmanuel Berton is in charge of an ongoing biometric e-gate project for Aeroport de Paris, which owns the two main airports serving the French capital.

According to Berton, Paris’s two main airports have deployed a total of 37 automated border control e-gates which have been introduced progressively since 2009. The majority of these gates (31) are at Charles De Gaulle (CDG) Airport with the remaining six at Orly.

The system used at these gates is known as PARAFE and based on fingerprint reading technology supplied by the Morpho (Safran group).

A new feature introduced in 2012 allows French citizens holding biometric passports to use PARAFE e-gates without pre-registration.

Other EU passengers who hold biometric passports can use the service for free but they have to enrol to the system, Berton says.

The e-gate security initiative was jointly financed by the French Ministry of the Interior and the airports owner, Aeroport de Paris. “The most important part of this system is that we have no access to private data,” said Berton. “We only have access to technical data. Access to the fingerprint and passport readers and the national database is managed by the police computer inside the system. The airport system only manages the gates mechanism.”

Information exchange is over a secured, safe network for all the police files and other databases. No personal information is recorded on the system. This means as soon as the passenger passes through the gates, the readings are not stored anywhere.

By the end of August 2015 the airports had registered approximately 5.5 million passengers passing through the gates. The average processing time was about 20 seconds per passenger and some 240,000 passengers have now enrolled onto the system.

“Our vision for the future is to provide a seamless passenger experience through both airports,” says Berton. “We also think that facial recognition technology needs to be used at all stages of the process so each passenger will not have to use their boarding pass or passport more than once after coming into the boarding lounge.”

There are a number of issues to overcome in the development of ADP’s biometric projects and it is having close discussions with the French Ministry of the Interior and the Data Privacy Commission to try and resolve them. Meanwhile it is preparing to launch two biometric trial projects – one at Charles de Gaulle and one at Orly.

The first trial at CDG airport will start in February 2016 and is scheduled to last for 12 months. The trial will see the introduction of two groups of five new gates from two different suppliers. The trial gates will perform exactly the same border control function as the existing PARAFE system gates but the trial will be based on facial recognition technology instead of fingerprints.

Every EU passenger holding a biometric passport will be able to use the new gates. “The purpose of the trial is to test fingerprint recognition speed and accuracy against that of facial recognition,” says Berton. “The trial will determine where the gates should be located, which supplier we will use and the goal is to have between five and seven gates controlled by one border police guard,” he added.

The second trial should start in November 2014 for four months but it is still awaiting final approval by the Data Privacy Commission. Once more it will compare the performance of fingerprint and facial recognition biometrics and the operational feasibility of the equipment in an airport environment. For the purposes of the trial one automatic gate will be placed at the passenger check-in area and one at the boarding zone.

“It will be a parallel process,” says Berton. “The passenger will go through the normal process but in addition we will use our trial system in order to compare the two. The operational data will be held using a token and the software will not allow a link to be made between the token and the passengers’ personal data.”

He says that if the project is not successful for either political or technical reasons the airport authority will have two options. Either renew the existing fingerprint-based gates and increase their number or change the technology used in the gates to facial recognition and ramp up their numbers in a similar way.

According to Berton the challenges faced by the introduction of the technology are clear. Can it cope with increasing passenger numbers and at the same time be operated by an unchanged number of police staff because of budget restrictions?

“We also have to convince all the stakeholders – which includes the Ministry for the Interior, the border police and customs – that this is the right way to go as it will mean we will have to re-invent all the border processes at the airport,” he adds.

Use of the existing e-gates has also demonstrated that passenger numbers have an effect on the performance of the equipment and the network he says even though exactly the same equipment and same protocols are being used. “CDG is a much busier airport than Orly and it is noticeable that there are more operational incidents with the system at one airport than the other,” he says.

Airports in New Zealand and Australia have pioneered the use of e-gates having been early adopters of the technology. Both countries have also been enthusiastic proponents of passenger pre-registration systems which help frequent flyers and business passengers speed through the immigration and security controls at the airport border.

Arron Baker from Immigration New Zealand explains the philosophy behind his agency’s new operating model. “We have been moving away from what was essentially a paper-based system to something which provides a completely digital experience and puts the customer at the centre of the process,” he says. “Next month we are going live with e-visa which for most people will remove the requirement to have to physically present a passport. Tourism, international education and migration is absolutely essential to New Zealand’s economic prosperity so the government has looked to us to make sure we have a system that puts the customer at the centre of the process and allows them to enter the country as quickly and smoothly as possible.”

He says New Zealand is blessed in having no land borders or passenger ferries or land bridges. “To get to New Zealand two-and-a-half hours is the shortest international flight so in many ways it is easier for us to manage some of the downside of migration.”

As part of the system there is a national, digital log-on credential known as “Real Me” based on robust biometric personal enrolment.

“Increasingly a number of private sector organisations including banks are now looking to use Real Me as the digital log on front end of their online offerings,” says Baker.

But New Zealand is a small country and passenger numbers will be relatively small compared to a much larger geographical area such as the European Union. Would such a biometric enrolment scheme work in the nearly 30 countries who make up the EU?

The European Commission has set up a programme known as Smart Borders. The project is made up of an Entry-Exit System, a Registered Traveller Programme and an amended Schengen Borders Code.

But the proposed legal frameworks for the system have encountered a multitude of technical, organisational and political problems

The plan is to conduct a live pilot in various locations. The aim is to use a document containing biometric information and data on entry and exit dates to create a single record without having to read multiple documents several times. This information would then be used to correctly identify an individual and then calculate how many days they are allowed to stay in the Schengen area with or without a visa.

For those who have applied and been given a visa there would be no need for any additional biometric information (such as the flawed 10-print proposal for each visit in the initial programme remit) because the traveller will have already supplied fingerprints and a readable facial image in their VIS (Visa Information System) application. For visa exempt travellers the idea would be for them to make an online registration.

Fares Rahmun is project manager for the EU Visa Information System at the Federal Office of Administration (BVA Bundesverwaltungsamt) in Germany. He has been running a Smart Borders pilot project in Germany and says a number of issues have been raised during the trial.

For starters, all participants in the pilot are volunteers, so no data protection issues have emerged from that selected sample. That could change if the system was to be adopted in the Schengen countries or throughout the EU. “The passengers who have participated in the system have been very often curious about the technology,” he says. “Some of the passengers really engaged with the process and the enrolment of their biometrics because they understood that it increases the security of their journey.”

He says this trend was most noticeable in passengers from the US. “One passenger from the US for example complained that we had enrolled his wife’s fingerprints but not his and he made a specific request for us to enrol his fingerprints as well.”

Despite the fact that the technology aim is intended to lead to greater automation of the security and immigration process the trials have shown that border police have to undertake a number of quite complex tasks to enrol passengers into the system. There are also some language problems as each passenger expects the border of immigration official to explain the procedure in their native language.

“We have to make sure that the use of technology does not disable the interaction between the passenger and the border guard,” he says. “This does not just cover the border guards’ normal passenger profiling activities but also the passenger’s experience of being welcomed into Schengen.”

Rahmun also points out that the new process is actually adding new checks for passengers and is adding more systems to the immigration procedure. “There are a lot of transactions which all adds time to the process and we need to be aware of that. What is also new for the border guard is that he is having to enrol data. Before that he was checking watch lists and interacting with the passenger. Now he has a new role.”

Mistakes with the enrolment data have also been identified. “The system may be new for the border guards but it is also new for the passengers who will not be happy if they are accused of over staying [in the Schengen zone] because of a technical problem or mistakes with the equipment,” he adds.

Passenger feedback on the pilots suggests that acceptance of enrolling biometric information as a way of speeding up the security process at airports and other border crossings has increased according to Rahmun. “Acceptance was higher than expected and that applied to both fingerprints and facial recognition technology,” he says.

The trials in Germany indicated that passengers were less happy with iris recognition biometrics, says Rahmun. He thinks that this impression of iris recognition being somehow “dangerous” is a result of its portrayal in popular science fiction films such as Minority Report.

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