Biometrics: a question of identity

Atkins | 20 Jan 2015 | Comments

How do you reconcile the need for stringent airport security with easier journeys for travellers? Biometric technology holds the key.

Air traffic is soaring: 3.2 billion passengers worldwide used air transport last year, up five per cent on 2013. In the UK, both Heathrow and Gatwick – Britain’s busiest airports – reported record passenger numbers, with Heathrow handling more than 73 million travellers in 2014.

Rising demand for air journeys is taking place against a backdrop of increasingly rigorous security checks. In modern terminals in the UK, biometrics are being used to link passengers to their travel documents – this ensures that the person who boards the plane is the same person who was given authority to fly.

London Heathrow introduced the Passenger Authentication Scanning System (PASS) to assist in this process. Designed and implemented by Atkins in partnership with Aurora Computer Services, PASS meets all the statutory requirements for checking boarding passes by integrating biometric facial recognition into the departure process.

Who goes there?

The technology involved in biometrics systems such as PASS has evolved to make certain it continues to operate at peak efficiency and high security.

“The facial recognition cameras installed at Heathrow use infrared light,” adds Dr Nick Whitehead, strategic services manager for identity assurance at Atkins. “This overcomes the problem with natural light, which can change from minute to minute. Infrared gives us consistent images and high quality matching in all situations.”

Cameras are not the only method for capturing the unique physical characteristics on which biometric systems depend – fingerprints and iris patterns can also be used. But each has limitations. Fingerprinting requires direct contact with a reading device, so maintenance through regular cleaning is required. And fingerprints can wear out, at least temporarily: sufferers of contact dermatitis and bricklayers are among those whose prints may prove unreadable.

Iris scans offer another biometric option, although early versions of the technology were considered intrusive: “Iris scans were originally used for frequent travellers who would register their details and the data would be retained,” says Whitehead. “The means of capture was awkward and quite unpleasant for the first iteration, although the technology is moving on now with the development of ‘capture at a distance’.”

Getting the passenger interface right is central to the success of any biometric security system. The challenge is balancing the competing factors of accuracy, cost, time and passenger experience.

Facial recognition technology fits the bill. It’s reliable, quick and non-intrusive. And unlike fingerprints and iris scans, facial data is already widely used in government issued identity documentation. This opens the door to future applications.

“Ubiquity is a factor,” says Whitehead. “Digital images are used extensively in identity documents: the ePassports used in the UK have a high-resolution jpeg encoded on the chip and it’s the only biometric that you would find in all new electronic passports. Even the old ones have a printed image.”

This makes it possible to authenticate the identity of passport holders electronically by comparing facial biometrics with image data already stored on the passport’s chip. Atkins has trialled this capability in conjunction with the airline trade association IATA at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with very encouraging results.

Transforming travel

While front line technologies such as facial recognition cameras attract much of the attention, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. What happens behind the scenes is just as important. Building a successful system starts not with technology, but by developing a deep understanding of the complex airport environment.

This matters because systems must meet not only security requirements, but also take into account the operational and commercial needs of different stakeholders. This is no small task: border control agencies, airline operators, airport owners and passengers all have different needs. Cultural factors – even tolerance to queuing – must also be taken into account. These factors vary from country to country, so every system must be fine-tuned to its environment.

Providing a high-quality passenger experience is vital. Airports operate in a competitive market and passenger satisfaction is regularly evaluated via Airport Service Quality surveys. An airport that acquires a reputation for slow and intrusive security is likely to prove less popular with passengers and airlines in the long run. Chaos and queues at airports can also have an impact on national reputation, so smooth and seamless operations are essential.

The quality of the customer experience can also have a direct impact on the commercial performance of the airport.

“Airport operators depend on revenue from retail operations, so they need to maximise the amount of time people spend in shopping areas,” says Whitehead. “Passenger experience is directly linked to the amount of money that people spend in airport shops. It’s also important for airline operators – if passengers are happy, they’ll fly more often.”

As well as helping to ease bottlenecks, biometric solutions make it possible to design smarter, smoother running airports. Because PASS links passengers with their boarding cards at an early stage in the process, there’s no need to segregate airside passengers into separate domestic and international zones – and therefore no need to duplicate facilities such as shops and concessions.

“The perceived wisdom is you need walls to separate people,” observes Whitehead. “But if you apply technology to the architect’s world, you don’t need to: logical rather than physical separation is now possible. Terminal 5 at Heathrow is deemed to be one of the best terminals in the world because it’s open and this has been enabled by reliable biometrics.”

Bridging the gap

As well as commercial and operational know-how, it takes expertise in systems integration to build airport ID management systems. New links must be established between disparate IT systems (in airports, these systems are seldom connected). Airport operators have one system, while airline operators each have their own dedicated systems.

This matters because responsibility for security and efficiency is shared. Pre-security checks and those made before passengers leave the departure lounge, for example, depend on systems operated by the airport. Check-in and the final check before boarding are managed by systems operated by the airline. Somehow, systems must be made to talk to each other.

To overcome this problem, Atkins created a bridgehead application that gathers snippets of data from the different systems as passengers move between checkpoints, with no confidentiality risk to the underlying commercial systems.

“Data is shared with the airline through a report that appears on the gate PC, giving a manifest of the last time a passenger was seen in the process,” explains Whitehead. “The latest iteration is a workflow engine that can be easily configured to a specific airline’s need. The new system allows an airline to make earlier decisions about passengers who are unlikely to make it through to the departure gate on time. Staff can then take action such as off-loading baggage and embarking standby passengers.”

Atkins has also worked with partners to overcome the challenge of integrating biometrics with the so-called “common use platform” – the IT platform used by staff at the branded but re-assignable check-in desks at airports. Common use systems are governed by stringent standards that don’t yet take biometrics into account.

“We’ve developed a mechanism by which we can integrate biometrics onto that platform ahead of the standards being made available,” says Whitehead. “The beauty of this solution is that it can be bolted on without affecting the airlines’ background applications. That’s important, because many of those applications are business critical and very old – you just don’t touch them.”

Facing the future

Atkins has already successfully trialled biometrically-enabled self-boarding with South African Airways and British Airways, combining PASS with a passenger-operated e-gate. The increasing use of self-service looks certain.

“We could reach a situation where you don’t need a boarding card: you just stand in front of the camera, you’re identified, that’s linked to a booking and you walk through without the need to carry a document,” says Whitehead.

Another promising avenue is biometric monitoring on the move. This could provide automated answers to tricky questions. For example, did everybody who got on the plane get off the plane? If passengers can be monitored as they walk along the jetway, they can be logged on and off, greatly improving security.

“The technology that makes applications of this sort possible has not only improved, it’s also become more affordable,” notes Whitehead. “The implications are massive.”

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