Comment: Are we heading for a passport-free future?

Andrew Bud of biometric verification firm iProov assesses the changing face of UK Border Force 

We are living in an era of unprecedented technological innovation and yet border checkpoints persist as often unpleasant experiences characterised by slow, manual processes causing delays and stress. But there may be light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and in this case, it isn’t a train.

In January 2024, the director general of the UK Border Force announced plans to create an ‘intelligent border’ that will enable travellers to verify their identity using facial biometrics rather than passports, creating a secure and much more pleasant border experience.

While an intelligent border sounds like a great way to improve the travel experience, how realistic is it?

The good news is that an intelligent border is already operational in the UK. Eurostar, the European high-speed rail service, recently launched ‘SmartCheck’, powered by iProov, combining cutting-edge facial biometrics and remote identity verification technology to replace the traditional manual check-ins and border exit checks.

This process links your passport, your face, and your ticket together ensuring that on the day of travel, you can simply show up at St. Pancras station and enter via the designated SmartCheck biometric corridor. The result is a contactless, fast, and secure journey in which passengers avoid manual checks of tickets and passports by Eurostar staff and enter via a facial verification system.

Facial biometric verification makes the check-in process faster, more convenient, and less stressful. By reducing the processing time needed for each passenger, pressure on staff can also be reduced and security improved by mitigating the risk of human errors.

While technologies may work well in a controlled environment, testing solutions in ‘real life’ can be very revealing. Surprise practical issues often emerge when projects are first trialled, which is why running numerous small-scale trials is important before any large-scale operation. A rushed launch could result in more delays, user and staff frustration, bad press, and worst of all, compromises to border and traveller security.

The trial and test process needs to establish:

  • Reliability – Can the system manage the anticipated volume of people and does it deliver staff-friendly recovery from power outages or connection challenges? Systems not working will cause huge frustration, delays, and lower consumer adoption.
  • Adaptability – Real travellers can do the most unpredictable things – can the system adjust to various scenarios, like different behaviours, angles, or walking speeds?
  • Security – This is non-negotiable for border control. Solutions must ensure very robust identity verification both when people enrol before departure, and in operation at the border.
  • Privacy – While it’s clear that many travellers are open to using biometrics instead of passports and boarding passes, programs such as this must ensure that users can trust their data is protected, and always have a choice.
  • User research and education – Finally, implementers need to consider and collect feedback from the typical traveller to determine what may discourage them from adopting this new border process. It’s also vital that staff are well-educated as they are the ones who will ensure that the service runs smoothly.

The announcement of UK intelligent borders has certainly caused some excitement, but it is unlikely that an effective facial biometric verification solution will completely replace passports at the UK border in the near future.

Trials and tests need to start small and be undertaken over an extended period of time to be comprehensive. This will be a necessary process to create a seamless travel process that upholds the highest security rigour while at the same time delighting travellers.

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