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Biometric Identification of The Traveller – Emerging Issues

While there is no gainsaying the invaluable use of biometric technology, it is hoped that the issues discussed above are also addressed


by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Montreal

Things have been, says the legal mind, and so we are here. The creative mind says we are here because things have yet to be. ~ H.G. Wells, Discovery of the Future (1902)

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is currently conducting it 15th annual Traveller Identification Programme Symposium (TRIPS) which runs from 25 to 28 June on the theme “Bridging the Digital-Physical Document Divide”. Many international entities such as the World Travel and Tourism Council, The International Air Transport Association, Airports Council International and Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe presented interesting reports and news of progress made by them in techniques of digital identification of the traveller through facial recognition that are calculated to enhance facilitation and security in border crossing.


It was indeed encouraging to learn of the advancements made by these entities, all of whom had the common objective of making the international transportation experience easier for both the traveller as well as the State in which traveller arrives. The World Economic Forum spoke of its Known Traveller Digital Identity (KTDI) concept aimed at providing answers to challenges posed to seamless and secure travel through a passenger centric approach using biometrics, blockchain, cryptography and mobile devices.

KTDI is calculated to apply predictive intelligence to the emergent challenges and opportunities presented by evolving technology and its relevant to cross border movements of people across the globe. KTDI as a digital identity process also addresses the varied needs and expectations of border crossers which would enable States to anticipate challenges presented by travellers crossing their borders. In this process the passport is the seminal document which would provide data to both the Advance Passenger Information (API) and Passenger Name Record (PNR) practices.

Just one example of the intrinsic link between aviation and the digital world is Blockchain - – a relatively new technological initiative in the business process – which promises “smart contracts” and is shaping modern business management in how businesses are managed and how value is created within enterprises, bringing to bear a distinct correlation between aviation and Blockchain. Inasmuch as the internet moves information and transmits the flow of data, Blockchain moves value which could assist industries in aviation to transact business faster; and improve tracking of passengers and freight while eliminating transaction costs. The networks based on Blockchain serve products and services better, making it a better tool for moulding the air transport product and enabling airports to become “smart airports”. Blockchain could well be the platform in various areas of aviation and is insulated from deleterious hacking, thereby offering security and immutability.

Since air transport in the digital world is heavily reliant on algorithms which make assumptions that are sometimes driven by biases, the possibility of a clash between algorithmic thinking and culture stands out as a possible conundrum that warrants serious consideration. Would the experts gathered at TRIPS think that it would be prudent to globally introduce an organizational culture driven by best practices to protect the passenger when algorithms might go wrong?

This issue becomes all the more pertinent in the face of the exponential increase in air travel that show leaps and bounds increase. For example, ICAO has said that in 2017 an unprecedented 4.1 billion passengers were carried by the aviation industry on scheduled services This indicated a 7.1% increase over 2016. At TRIPS Airports Council International observed that, whereas in 2017 around 7.5 billion passengers passed through the world’s airports, this figure was going to more than double to around 17 billion in 2034. Various aspects of traveller identification, not to single out biometric identification, bring to bear issues of privacy and the right to privacy of the individual. The Economist states (correctly) that: “[F]acial recognition also has the potential to merge the tracking that happens in the digital and physical realms. It turns the face into an address that links behaviour in the real world with online profiles and vice versa”. One commentator says: “[D]igital technology-computing, databases, the Internet, mobile communications, and the like-thus calls for further evolution of privacy rights, both conceptually and in law. Unlike previous technological changes, however, the scope and magnitude of the digital revolution is such that privacy law cannot respond quickly enough to keep privacy protections relevant and robust.

On 18 December 2013 The United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/167 - The right to privacy in the digital age. This Resolution calls upon States to respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication; to take measures to put an end to violations of those rights and to create the conditions to prevent such violations, including by ensuring that relevant national legislation complies with their obligations under international human rights law. It also calls upon States to review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and the collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, interception and collection, with a view to upholding the right to privacy by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all their obligations under international human rights law; and to establish or maintain existing independent, effective domestic oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency, as appropriate, and accountability for State surveillance of communications, their interception and the collection of personal data.

Finally, on the conflict between algorithmic thinking and culture, a key consideration would be how to manage artificial intelligence. In an earlier article I quoted Sutapa Amornvivat, who runs an AI driven company in Thailand, who cautions that AI has to be managed well as: “with the right tools and technology, crucial insights can be unlocked from data. At the same time, we should be aware that the blind spots and biases within can lead us to the wrong conclusions. Real limitations to data-driven approaches exist and necessitate human oversight to ensure that they are utilized correctly and to their fullest protection”.

Eleonore Pauwels, Research Fellow on Emerging Cybertechnologies at United Nations University (UNU), says about AI: “AI is already ubiquitous, but will affect people differently, depending on where they live, how much they earn, and what they do for a living. Scholars from civil society have started raising concerns about how algorithmic tools could increasingly profile, police, and even punish the poor. On the global and political stage, where corporations and states interact, AI will influence how these actors set the rules of the game. It will shape how they administer and exert power on our societies’ collective body. These new forms of control raise urgent policy challenges for the international community.

While there is no gainsaying the invaluable use of biometric technology, it is hoped that the issues discussed above are also addressed.

Dr. Abeyratne is Senior Associate, Air Law and Policy at Aviation Strategies International. He teaches air law and policy at McGill University and is former Senior Legal Officer at The International Civil Aviation Organization.

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