Blockchain and Biometrics Could Produce Paperless Global Travel, Boost Border Security
A wonderful week in Italy is coming to an end, and now it’s the heartbreak of leaving the life of the Med. But you're imbued with the spirit of la dolce vita. Italy has given you a new appreciation for life and people, for beauty, for relaxation, art and culture, for good food and wine, for laughter and enjoyment – for the whole human comedy. You look at the world with a tolerant twinkle in the eye and an epicurean smile. You feel renewed.
At the Rome airport, glacial customs lines put you in a panic about missing your flight. You land in the States and drag yourself and luggage through more long customs lines. The guy behind you pushes a baggage cart into you a few times. Up ahead someone cuts in line – infuriating! You’re so befuddled by jet lag you find yourself in the wrong line, so you have to start over. You finally get to the customs official and he doesn’t like the look of you, so he opens your luggage and inspects everything with a fine-toothed metal detector. You repack your suitcases and grind your teeth.
By the time you stumble to your car, la dolce vita is gone, the life of the Med is dead, your resolution to lower your stress level and take life in stride a little more, is a sour joke.
That’s the downside of international travel. Proving to officials at national borders that you are who you say you are is complicated, slow and exhausting. And in the post-9/11 world, as international travel increases, the problem will only get worse.
But good news – in the form of a combination of blockchain, biometrics and advanced cryptography – could be in the offing. Under a pilot project developed by consulting service giant Accenture in partnership with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Security in Travel Project and the government of Canada, a new digital identity system is about to be tested that’s designed to reduce friction and improve security in cross-border travel.
Called the Known Traveler Digital Identity System and launched recently at the WEF in Davos, Switzerland, it utilizes distributed ledger technology to enable travelers to share their information with customs authorities prior to traveling, for expedited customs clearance. The system gives travelers control over the use of their digital identity and its components (fingerprints, facial image, passport number, etc.). A traveler can send proof of identity information – secured by blockchain technology and cryptography – to government and airline/hotel organizations before their trip. The system is designed not only to improve border security and accelerate customs processing, but also to speed up checking in for airline flights and hotels.
According to Liselotte de Maar, managing director in Accenture travel industry practice, the major challenge in designing the system was not combining blockchain, biometrics and cryptography, it was building a system that wins the trust of government border security agencies along with airline and hotel companies - and travelers.
A key to designing in that trust, de Maar told EnterpriseTech, is avoiding the use of a single, and thus vulnerable, repository for traveler’s digital identities.
“Current concepts around digital identity usually have in common a centralized database or central organization that’s managing those identities, and that is actually holding back the possibility of governments sharing data about their citizens without restrictions and with private (sector) partners,” she said. “So one of the requirements is that it should be interoperable between governments, private partners… That’s where blockchain came in because the technology allows you to not store all the data in one place, or place the burden on one partner to be responsible for keeping the data secure and for its reliability.”
Another key is giving travelers control over their own information.
“As a traveler, you are holding your own identity information,” said de Maar. “As you enroll in the system, biometrics are stored with you and you decide with whom and when to share. So it’s not based on inter-company or inter-country agreement. It’s similar to opt-in, so…you have a choice whether to share it or not.”
Travelers who share digital IDs increase the chances of getting pre-cleared to cross country borders and to bypass the normal checking in process for flights and hotels. Ultimately, if adoption of the Known Traveler system becomes widespread, there is the potential for paperless travel, de Maar said.
An incentive for building the system is an anticipated increase in global travel. A recent study reports that by 2030, international air arrivals will reach 1.8 billion passengers, a 50 percent increase from the 1.2 billion in 2016.
The Known Traveler System has been under development for two years by a public/private partnership that, besides Accenture, includes an impressive array of government, technology, financial services and travel-related organizations, such as Marriott International, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, AccorHotels, Amadeus IT Group, AirAsia, Airports Council International, the governments of Canada and The Netherlands, Google, Hilton Worldwide, various international aviation and law enforcement organizations and Visa, among others.
“With travelers providing access to verified personal biometric, biographic and historical travel data at their discretion, they can assist authorities to undertake risk assessments and pre-screening in advance: essentially verifying their identities and providing secure and seamless movement throughout their journey using biometric recognition technology” said John Moavenzadeh, head of the Mobility System Initiative at the World Economic Forum. “Not only does this provide for greater personalization and passenger-centricity in the design of services, but the passenger becomes a central actor in ensuring public safety.”
“The use of distributed ledger technology can foster an unprecedented level of trust between governments, businesses and travel providers that becomes stronger over time as more interactions take place across the travel ecosystem,” said de Maar. “The KTDI concept removes friction from travelling while ensuring greater security at each touch point, from hotel check-in to border control. By enabling travelers to share their validated identity information through the KTDI, it allows receiving organizations the advantage of knowing in advance with whom they will interact.”