The commercial aviation sector is growing, with passenger volume expected to double by as early as 2031. As more and more people take to the air, the importance of aviation security and the traveler frustration that comes with lengthening screening cues is bound to increase. More than half of travelers already identify security screening and immigration as a major sticking point along their journey. Biometric technologies present the rare opportunity to simultaneously improve security, speed up operations, and enhance the passenger experience. On October 15th, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) published its Biometrics Roadmap, laying out the agency’s plan to leverage biometrics to modernize passenger identification verification and capitalize on the dual-promise of increased effectiveness and efficiency.
Facial recognition will be TSA’s biometric technology of choice
The Biometrics Roadmap reveals that facial recognition will play the lead role in TSA’s air travel identity verification strategy. Despite fingerprints remaining, for the time being, the primary biometric used for trusted traveler programs, the Roadmap makes it clear that TSA is putting all their eggs in one basket with facial recognition–and with reason. Especially when compared to manual identity verification, facial recognition technology is comparatively low-cost, more accurate, and faster. It is also possible to extend the technology across the passenger journey in coordination with airlines and other key aviation security partners, offering an excellent opportunity to significantly enhance the passenger experience.
Expanding biometrics capabilities using facial recognition facilitates the scalability necessary to meet growing operational demands. Facial recognition algorithms can use photos taken by commercially available cameras, including mobile devices, and, unlike fingerprint or iris recognition, no additional hardware is required. Perhaps most importantly, facial images are collected by both the state and Federal governments, decreasing the difficulty of compiling image databases. By comparison, fingerprint data is much less common.
A phased approach…
The TSA Biometrics Roadmap is organized around four main goals: 1) partnering with CBP to use biometrics in verifying international passenger exits; 2) using biometrics with TSA PreCheck travelers; 3) expanding biometrics to the broader domestic traveler market; 4) developing biometric infrastructure.
Goal 1 – Partner with CBP on Biometrics for International Travelers
TSA plans to expand its cooperation with CBP on Biometric Air Exit pilots, some of which are already underway. The CBP has been required by law since 2012 to implement a biometric entry and exit system (8 U.S.C 1365B) and ordered to expedite implementation last year (Executive Order 13780). By joining forces, TSA and CBP can avoid a duplication of efforts, ensure that interoperability requirements are met, and demonstrate DHS “Unity of Effort” to lawmakers. Piggybacking on the CBP project has the added benefit of allowing TSA to explore technical, legal and regulatory issues without assuming the cost or risk of an independent venture.
Goal 2 – Operationalize Biometrics for TSA PreCheck Travelers
PreCheck participants already provide biometric information (in the form of fingerprints) and undergo background checks to qualify for expedited screening. New applicants and reenrolling program participants will be required to supply both fingerprints and facial images. This provides the TSA with a low-risk, pre-vetted pool of travelers that can be leveraged to test image collection and verification methods without sacrificing security. A successful PreCheck biometrics program will also help TSA to meet Congressionally mandated program expansion targets, and efficiently manage the concomitant increased load on trusted traveler screening lanes.
Goal 3 – Expand Biometrics to Additional Domestic Travelers
Compared to international exits and PreCheck, bringing biometric capabilities to bear in the broader domestic aviation market presents a much more difficult challenge. First, many if not most domestic travelers do not have biometric data on file with the Federal government (e.g. a passport photo). Nascent solutions like Mobile Drivers’ Licenses (mDL) that include biometric data represent potential future solutions. For now, TSA faces a difficult task of coordinating between state authorities, the Federal government, and industry partners while simultaneously balancing privacy requirements and controlling costs.
Goal 4 – Develop Supporting Infrastructure for Biometric Solutions
Underlying the three previous goals, TSA will align development of biometric capabilities with the Office of Biometric Identity Management’s (OBIM) Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) system. TSA also plans to implement a standard assessment process for biometric solutions.
Unlocking the business case
Of potential interest for airlines, airports, and solution providers, TSA has stated their intentions to pursue “innovative models of public-private partnerships to drive collaboration and co-investment” in biometric solutions. The form these partnerships will take and their impact on the acquisition process is not yet clear. Whatever solutions are eventually adopted by the TSA will need to support interoperability across airports and airlines, excluding proprietary systems that might result in multiple-enrollment requirements. “Streamlined” and “consistent” are TSA’s watchwords when it comes to passenger experience. The TSA Biometrics Roadmap also prioritizes privacy and cybersecurity considerations. Vendors will be required to ask passengers to “opt in” to any offerings that use biometrics data for services other than transportation security. Balancing technical, regulatory, and commercial objectives will be challenging for industry and regulator alike, but the Roadmap could be an important step towards a more secure, efficient and enriched traveler experience.