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Border Security After the Pandemic: The Urgent Need for Remote and Touchless Identity Services

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of contemporary life. Border security is no exception. Agencies are looking urgently to the biometrics industry for remote and touchless services.

At the time of writing, in July 2020, we’re beginning to see the green shoots of recovery. Airlines are beginning to schedule more flights, airports are becoming a little busier, and the numbers of passengers at security and immigration – while not yet normal – are at least healthier than they were a few months ago.

Those working outside border management might assume that national border agencies have had very little to do over the past few months. The reality is very different.

Border agencies are very aware of their role in the shop window of national economies: an efficient and secure process before, at and after the border is essential for both trade and tourism. Many national agencies have been working hard behind the scenes to prepare for the new normal. The success of those plans will depend in part on the ability of border agencies to respond to the legitimate concerns of travellers.

High on the list of traveller concerns will be: am I required to wait in close proximity with other travellers, and am I required to use touch devices (such as kiosks, eGates and fingerprint readers) immediately after other travellers? This is where the biometrics industry must step up with new and innovative solutions.

At WorldReach, we have been working for several years on an IDV service (identity and document verification) designed for the specific needs of border agencies and other travel service providers. Our platform – Know Your Traveller™ – combines the power of smartphones to read a passport chip (via NFC) with the latest in facial recognition technology. This includes an instant facial match between selfie and passport, and a genuine presence test to prevent spoofing.

Any agency using such a service can have confidence that a genuine document has been presented and that it has not been lost or stolen. They can also be sure that the traveller is a real, live person who is the rightful holder of the document. And all this can be achieved remotely, without the passenger needing to be seen in person or submit documents in the mail.

This IDV service is already in production at volume in the real world: it has been used since early 2019 by the UK Home Office as the first step in the innovative EU Settlement Scheme. An estimated 4 million EU nationals living in the UK are required to register with the Home Office for a new ‘settled status’, in order to continue living and working in the UK following Brexit.

The Home Office recently announced that, only 15 months since launching the scheme, more than 3.7 million applicants had already applied successfully. And an overwhelming majority of those applying did so remotely, through the digital route that allows them to verify their identity with no in-person visit and no mailing of hard copy documents.

The large majority of those choosing the digital route completed it successfully, without assistance, in just a few minutes. This compares very favourably with similar remote digital on-boarding processes in other sectors, including financial services, where there is often a high drop-out rate.

A similar approach was recently announced by Innovate UK to improve the flow of passengers joining a Eurostar train at St. Pancras station in London for travel to France, Belgium or the Netherlands. In this case, we at WorldReach are working together with Eurostar and our partners at iProov with the intention of making a significant step towards what the World Travel & Tourism Council calls the Safe & Seamless Traveller Journey.

Passengers preparing to leave the UK will pre-register their biographic and biometric information – including a facial image – before travel using a secure mobile app. On arrival at the station, there will be no need for passengers to show their passport or a boarding pass. Instead, they will simply have their facial image captured at an expedited lane for participating travellers. The new image will be checked against the registration image instantly using secure facial recognition technology. And the same data will then be used for dual purposes: to alert Eurostar that the passenger has checked in for their train, and to record for UK Border Force that the same passenger is leaving the UK.  

In this way, the secure pre-travel registration of personal data – both biographic and biometric – will be used to facilitate the travel of legitimate passengers and to feed into border control.

In Canada, a similar approach is being explored by Canada Border Services Agency as part of an innovative project called the Chain of Trust, in which biographic and biometric data captured early in the travel continuum is combined with dynamic risk assessment to determine the appropriate channel for each passenger at the border.

Following an automated assessment, the smartphone app used to register data before travel will send instructions to the passenger about which channel they should use at the destination airport. Those passengers deemed eligible will be directed to a biometric corridor where there will be no need to speak to an officer (in most cases) or present a physical document. Instead, passengers will simply walk along the corridor, where automated cameras will check their faces against the list of expected travellers. The ultimate aim is to achieve zero wait time at the border for eligible, low-risk passengers.

Thanks to our experience in this domain, some examples of which are summarised above, WorldReach has been presented with some urgent challenges in recent weeks, as border agencies begin to set strategies for pandemic recovery. These challenges include:

  • How can a border process heavily dependent on touch-screen kiosks or eGates adapt to the post-pandemic world in which many travellers demand a touchless alternative?
  • How can a visa application system based on the in-person collection of biometrics in visa application centres respond to travellers’ expectations for a fully digital, remote process?
  • How can a large population of in-country migrants apply safely and securely for an extension or a change in status without the need to attend a government facility in person?

A significant part of the answer to these questions lies in innovations based on the fully remote, digital IDV process described above. Instead of requiring newly arrived travellers to stand in a queue with others and use a touch-screen kiosk or eGate, why not allow them to enrol in advance of arrival, on their own smartphone, and grant access based on a touchless facial match at the border?

Instead of expecting visa applicants to travel to an application centre and wait with others to enrol their biometrics, why not allow them to submit the information remotely, at home, using a mobile device?

The technologies required to do this are already available. But it is not enough for biometric vendors to sell components to government agencies and then go on our way. That is a recipe for failure, when government can least afford it. Rather, what we need is an open, collaborative partnership between border agencies and biometric specialists.