Walk on by

Facial recognition

Free flowing passenger security border and immigration systems, whereby identities are checked on the move without the need to produce any travel documents or other tokens, have been talked about for years. Gary Mason reports from the Passenger Terminal conference in Amsterdam where live trials are hoping to provide a breakthrough before the end of the year.

E-gates at airport border and security checkpoints around the world have been with us for more than a decade now but most of them still use what could be called first generation technology. By that I mean that passengers still need to queue and come to a full stop at the gates in order to use them, insert their passport so that it can be read electronically and a facial image of each passenger can be taken and compared to the one in the presented travel document.

All this tends to take at least 10 minutes even on a good day and a lot longer in some airports at certain times of the day or year. This is because not all the e-gates at an airport are available all the time for either technical or administrative reasons. The gates are also not people proof  – someone who puts their passport in the wrong way around, doesn’t look into the camera square on or doesn’t follow the process in the strict linear way in which it has been designed, holds up those behind waiting to use the system.

So have e-gates made any real impact on the border and immigration queue – the bête noire of frequent flyers from Atlanta to Amsterdam? Funnily enough, on my return to London from the Passenger Terminal conference in the Dutch capital I had to have my passport checked twice within five minutes at the departure terminal border – once at an e-gate and once at a staffed border post. Both checks required me to wait in queues.

Quite fitting then that Schiphol has embarked on two trials of new technology which will allow passengers to walk through checkpoints without stopping.

Daan Vroonhoven is Manager for Security Policy at the Royal Schiphol Group. He told the conference in Amsterdam that Schiphol airport is testing two new biometric gate technologies this year to speed the passenger flow through the airport.

Both projects are at a “proof of concept” stage and depending on the input from the trials the airport hopes to build upon the technology to have a working system as soon as possible.

Technology is not the only consideration of course. Because both projects involve the use of passengers’ biometric data  – involving potentially millions of records stored on airport systems for a definable period each year – there has to a thorough legal and privacy element built in. There also needs to be a sound business case for each system to be adopted throughout the airport as part and parcel of day-to-day operations.

He says that each quarter of the pilot testing period will be monitored closely and can be either stopped for further evaluation or continued. It is hoped that a “pressure cooker approach” will produce a working system and a viable product by the end of this year.

“Obviously we cannot do this on our own,” says Vroonhoven. “On board we have the process owners – which on the one hand in case of border security is the Dutch Government. But also all the airlines and the airport.”

Management have also selected two technology suppliers as partners in the project – Vision Box who design biometric gates and Scarabee Aviation Group who specialise in passenger-friendly future-proofed security systems. Vroonhoven told the conference that these vendors were chosen because Schiphol Airport had worked with them before.

“We are convinced that if we work together will all the stakeholders providing the necessary input we will have the expertise to build a working system specifically for our airport,” he says.

As protecting passenger privacy needs to be high on the project’s agenda the airport is also going to work closely with the relevant institutions for protecting citizen data in the Netherlands. “A policy of total transparency is the best way to produce a privacy-by-design solution,” says Vroonhoven.

The two proof of concept projects will be based within the biometric border control zone and the second for a new biometric boarding facility which passengers can opt to use. “By choosing these two we hope to cover all aspects of the airport process chain,” he says.

With the border control project, management realised that is was a sensitive process that needed to be thoroughly tested in the most appropriate way. The airport has therefore chosen a place in a terminal where the new system can be tested but compliancy with the statute-driven border controls is still guaranteed. It was also essential that normal border control operations were not hindered in any way.

“Specifically the pilot is designed to test large scale biometrics and the Vision Box on the move system,” he adds. The test site consists of a Schengen zone on the one side, a non-Schengen zone on the other and a border crossing zone in the middle. In front of the crossing zone there are two biometric enrolment stations. There are also two gates in the testing zone – one existing technology e-gate for automatic border passage and the new on-the-move gate which is designed for passengers to pass through without having to stop their journey through the zone to have documents checked or facial recognition authenticated by a static camera.

The idea is that the pilot will be operated as a dual system process so that there will always be the option for border control staff to revert to using the traditional stop and start automatic e-gates but hopefully over time trust in the faster walk through system will see those gates being used more often. This obviously depends on the technology working well and passengers and border staff having complete trust in the newer technology.

“The new gates will be tested for both speed and accuracy,” Vroonhoven told delegates. “We hope to be the first airport to use these new gates in our everyday operations. That will be an exciting development in passenger security at airports.”

The new walk through gates are longer than the traditional automatic border gates and make use of two cameras in order for a passenger to walk through without stopping. The cameras rely on each passenger’s natural and normal walking motion to obtain a readable facial image “on the fly.”

The second proof of concept pilot is being held in the boarding area. Technology and information transfer via a biometric platform should provide important insight into how the boarding process can be changed and simplified in the future. Similar to the immigration and border control test site, the boarding pilot will be held in a “sterile” area of the airport to ensure that the normal staffed boarding gate operations are not negatively impacted upon.

The airport has established two biometric enrolment stations for passengers who want to use the automatic boarding gates. And next to the new automatic gates will be a staffed gate so that staff and passengers have both options available if there are any technological glitches or the boarding area becomes extremely busy.

“Information, communication and providing assistance to passengers is key,” says Vroonhoven. “In both cases we need to explain exactly how the new gates work, what will be done with the biometric data and how long it will be stored on the airport systems. There should also be an option for passengers to pull out of the system if they decide after all that they are not comfortable with the new system having already started to use it.”

Early passenger reaction to the proof of concept pilots has been quite positive according to the airport. Passengers have said that it is simple and easy to use and more importantly is a good innovation to speed up the process. Some passengers described it as “convenient and a time saver” and one passenger who was travelling with a lot of luggage said the walk through aspect of the system meant that there was no risk of passengers losing either their passport or boarding pass while going through the process. One passenger said he was completely unperturbed by the facial recognition aspect of the system because he had been using his “fingerprints to check into his gym for years.”

Of course the system is still in the testing stage and is not the finished product. One delegate pointed out that at airports in other countries  – Dubai and Hong Long for example – biometric enrolment systems operated so that passengers only have to enroll their details once to use those systems whereas in Schiphol passengers would have to enroll with the systems each time they entered the airport which could be many times a year for frequent flyers and business travellers or daily commuters.

Mr Vroonhoven accepted that was the case. “Currently we envision that every time you enter the airport you have to enroll,” he said. “Whether that will stay in the future is up for discussion. We would like to have data in a secure place in order not to have to do that but that is not the first step in a project of this nature and to get to that stage [where biometrics are enrolled by each passenger once only] might take a long time.”

What impact will multiplexing have on the process? The current security set up at Schiphol has, since 2015, used a multiplexing process whereby remote screening is carried out at the airport security checkpoints. “We planned to have the remote screening in a different separate location,” he added “but for rotation purposes of staff at the checkpoint we found it better to have a system whereby the operator is in the security lane but is provided with images of all the security lanes in that checkpoint. Capability for sharing of images is still there but the operators are located within the checkpoint.”

How much will the new biometric systems cost if they are adopted throughout the airport and will other stakeholders – the government, border police and airlines for example  –  be expected to share the set up and running costs of the new system?

“This has all to be decided which is why we are in the proof of concept stage now,” says Vroonhoven. “My board clearly wants to know what kind of investment we are looking at.” At this stage he admits it is difficult to say because you could have less than 10 gates operating the new system or more than 100 and each gate using it will add to the cost.

Another issue is that not every one agrees that facial recognition is the best biometric to go with on mass enrolment applications. Some governments/institutions opt for iris scans instead. Vroonhoven told  delegates on this point that “according to the experts facial recognition was the emerging global standard. It is most likely the standard to follow and with our suppliers this technology is much further ahead in development than other biometrics.”

In fact, ICAO have stated a broad preference for use of facial recognition in airport and airline systems.

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