Biometric security and immigration at airports: Your future passport is your face

There's an old truism of travel: as long as you've got your passport, you'll be fine. You can forget items of clothing, you can break your phone, you can lose your valuables. As long as you have your passport, you can travel.

You can pass from country to country. You can identify yourself to local police. You can check into hotels. You can get yourself onto a flight.

Your passport is everything. I live in constant fear of losing mine. I never want to be without it.

And yet, what if that's about to change? What if passports are about to go the way of the traveller's cheque and the paper air ticket? What if the only thing you'll need to travel the world in the near future will be your face?

That time is not so far off. In fact, in some ways it's already here. You would have noticed the increase in biometric security in Australian airports over the past five or six years, in the way a scan of your face is now enough to open e-gates and allow you access to the other side of the airport.

That's a start, but there's a lot more coming. Pretty soon you'll be able to conduct your entire travel experience with your face and fingerprints. You'll be able to check into your flight and drop your luggage, get through security, board the plane, pass security at the other end, pick up your hire car, and then check into your hotel or board your cruise. All with nothing but your face and fingers.

No passport. No boarding pass. No credit cards. The travel experience, changed forever.

Right now, there are 15 airports in the US trialling what they call "seamless travel". In the likes of Atlanta, Boston, LAX and JFK, the US Customs and Border Patrol is testing out biometric IDs for passport control and boarding. The technology is only available at a couple of gates per airport, but still, it's happening. You can get on a plane with only your face for ID.

Outside of the US, Amsterdam Schiphol airport is testing biometric boarding gates, Munich Airport has had a "biometric bag drop" for a few years now, and Beijing's new airport, due to open later this year, will feature extensive use of biometrics. In Australia, Sydney Airport announced a plan to phase out the necessity for passports entirely by 2020, though that looks unlikely to happen so soon.

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So that's the new airport experience: no passport, no boarding pass. Edging closer to seamless travel. And the interesting thing is that the seamlessness will soon continue after you've left the airport.

Car rental company Hertz has already launched biometric kiosks in the US, beginning at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport, with plans to roll them out at 40 hubs throughout 2019. The system, essentially, allows clients to stroll into the Hertz carpark, choose a car, drive it out to a gate, roll down the window and have their face scanned, and then drive away. Done.

The tech is only available for the company's "Gold Plus Rewards" members, but still, it's a vision of the future for the rest of us.

Hotels are trialling the technology too. Marriott Hotels tested out biometric IDs for check-in in two properties in China last year. Royal Caribbean did the same for the boarding procedure on its cruises. Soon hotel and cruise facilities such as lounges, fitness centres, spas and casinos will be accessible via biometrics, either with facial recognition or fingerprint ID.

And biometrics isn't the only new technology becoming available, either. There are other possibilities emerging, which might be popular for those worried about security and privacy with fingerprints and facial recognition (though no breaches have yet occurred, and thus far no evil genius has swapped faces with their arch nemesis, a la the seminal 1997 movie Face/Off).

There's apparently an increase in people having RFID implants – that is, having a chip implanted under their skin to act in the same way a PayWave card or ApplePay phone does, allowing identification through near-field technology. Of course, you only need to go from no one to one person to claim an "increase" in people doing this, so I'm not convinced this is a thing we're going to see a lot of.

Still, it demonstrates the potential for change in the travel experience, not in a few decades or even a few years, but now.

Already, you don't need a wallet. You don't need an air ticket. And pretty soon you won't need a passport or any other form of ID.

Just your face. Try not to lose it.

Have you noticed the use of biometrics in airports? Are you worried about privacy, or are you looking forward to seamless travel? Would you use biometrics for hire cars or hotels?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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