Welcome to the airport of the future, where your face is your passport

In BUSINESS, TECH

Australia is a bloody long way from the rest of the world. Fly from Los Angeles to Sydney and you’ll be in the air for 13 hours. Tack on five more if you’re starting in New York. And if you’re coming from London, your feet won’t touch the ground for about a day.

The point being, by the time you land in Australia, you’ll be sick of traveling. You’ll want to get out of the airport and to the country’s excellent beaches as quickly as possible.

That’s why Australia’s Department of Home Affairs is at the forefront of smart border control technology. In 2007, the border agency introduced SmartGates, which read your passport, scan your face and verify who you are at the country’s eight major international airports. Built by Portugal’s Vision-Box, the gates get you out of the airport and into Australia with minimum fuss.

Australia wants to make that process even faster.

During May and June 2017, the country tested the world’s first “contactless” immigration technology at Canberra International Airport. The passport-free facial recognition system confirms a traveller’s identity by matching his or her face against stored data. A second trial is set to start in Canberra soon.

Biometrics aren’t just being used at border control. Sydney Airport has announced it’s teaming up with Qantas, Australia’s largest airline, to use facial recognition to simplify the departure process.

Under a new trial, passengers on select Qantas international flights can have their face and passport scanned at a kiosk when they check in. From then on, they won’t need to present their passport to Qantas staff — they’ll be able to simply scan their face at a kiosk when they drop off luggage, enter the lounge and board their flight at the gate. Travellers will still need to go through regular airport security and official immigration processing, but all of their dealings with Qantas can be handled with facial recognition.

“Your face will be your passport and your boarding pass at every step of the process,” Geoff Culbert, Sydney Airport CEO, said of the new development.

This kind of biometric security wouldn’t be possible without the high-tech makeover that passports have been given in recent years.

Since the League of Nations introduced the first “uniform” passport in 1920, the humble book of stamps has come a long way — from machine-readable travel documents proposed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 1980 to the first electronic passports issued by Malaysia in 1998. More than 490 million ePassports — each holding an RFID chip containing a digital copy of our personal information and biometric identifiers — from 100 countries are now in circulation.

It isn’t just passports getting updated for the 21st century; border controls are getting an upgrade too. Humans at border control are already being replaced with automated gates and biometric cameras capable of mapping your face in real time and matching it with a stored photo taken from your passport.

And soon, you’ll be able to enter a country without carrying a physical passport — or even saying a word to another human being.

That’s not a gate, that’s a gate

Since it introduced ePassports in 2005, Australia has been a trailblazer in passport and border control technology.

The country began rolling out SmartGates at arrivals terminals in 2007, expanding to departure terminals in 2015. These gates are now the primary method for processing travellers across Australia’s major international airports. During peak hours, a single SmartGate can handle as many as 150 passengers an hour — that’s one person being processed through immigration every 24 seconds.

Under the SmartGate system, travellers arriving in Australia use a kiosk to scan their ePassport. The ePassport is a mix of old and new — it still has physical pages, but the traveller’s name, nationality and a digital photograph of their face are also stored on a microchip embedded in the centre page.

Once they’ve scanned this passport, the traveller then moves to the SmartGate for a face scan. The SmartGate’s cameras measure biometric identifiers like the distance between eyes and between the nose and mouth. If the real-time facial scan matches the passport photo that was scanned at the kiosk, the traveller can pass through the gate and enter Australia.

Other countries have similar systems, though they were introduced later. The US Department of Homeland Security uses the Automated Passport Control system, which requires a final check by a border officer. The EU handles movement of travellers from Schengen member states (essentially the bulk of EU countries) with a system called Smart Borders.

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