Border Control & National ID Month: Multimodal Airports

The Rise of Multimodality and The Need For Biometric Border Control

Biometrics in airports are not completely dissimilar to biometrics in financial services. A few years ago, before the big mobile biometrics boom kicked off with Apple’s Touch ID, there was a competition between biometric modalities as vendors bumped shoulders to be at the front of the crowd when OEMs and app developers picked their strong authentication methods for integration. But as time passed, a prevailing attitude began to emerge: let the users decide how to authenticate. At this year’s Mobile World Congress, this stance was made abundantly clear by Visa, which is investing in multiple types of biometric authentication in order to better serve its diverse, global customer base who will define the dominant modality themselves. Something similar seems to be in store for border control.

Border Control and National ID Month: Multimodal AirportsNow, I don’t have to tell you that FinTech isn’t border control. The consumer biometrics on smartphones that allow for payments can mostly be circumvented by passwords, so the feature is primarily one of convenience, fine for authenticating small level transactions quickly, whereas the biometrics we see deployed at airports are tasked with the protection of entire nations. If a fingerprint scanner at an airport also had the option to be bypassed with a four digit code or touch screen pattern-lock, we would all be in a lot of trouble. But despite the difference in risk profile, the biometrics in FinTech and border control do have one thing in common: they are coming face-to-face with a massive swath of the global population, and that group of people is the very definition of diversity.

In April, Safran Identity & Security’s VP of Strategy and Market Development, Luc Tombal, made the case for a multimodal future in border control, pointing to his company’s deployments of multiple biometric types in the United Arab Emirates. Safran’s technology has been deployed in the region’s major airports, with iris, face and fingerprint all serving the traveler screening process. What makes the example so effective is that the UAE airports in question serve passengers with many cultural needs that would interfere with mono-modality solutions. Many women passing through the security checkpoints, for example, have covered faces for religious reasons, so iris is popular with that demographic, but fingerprint and face can be used in cases where supplementary identification is needed or iris is ineffective. The three different biometric options give the airports the flexibility demanded by a diverse demographic.

Multimodality and Cultural Nuance

Border Control and National ID Month: Multimodal AirportsThe three modalities that Safran has deployed in its UAE airports are the same major ones we see deployed elsewhere around the world. The NEXUS program between Canada and the United States uses iris recognition from Iris ID, while the Aruba airport uses face as a primary modality in its Vision-Box powered Happy Flow system. Fingerprints are a major part of the PreCheck advanced screening program offered by the TSA in the US, and all over the globe we see similar situations—region or facility specific programs based around a single modality, aimed at providing expedited security screening and bolstered security.

While the introduction of any automated security screening powered by biometrics is a major step in the right direction (anyone who’s experienced both sides of the security divide in airports will no doubt attest to this), there is a cultural nuance missing from single-modality border control deployments that precludes them from a global inclusiveness which ought to be their goal. In the same way that FinTech is moving away from the Touch ID-or-bust paradigm that characterized the infancy of mobile commerce, border control’s next step will be inclusive to the preferences of the screening subjects, treating them like the people with culture and history that they are. If airports are gateways to the rest of the world, they should be prepared to serve the rest of the world.

Comprehensive Convenience

Border Control and National ID Month: Multimodal AirportsThis might all seem like small potatoes. After all, isn’t the whole point of border security the actual security? To an extent, that’s true, given the importance of national security in our current age of international terrorism, security rightly trumps convenience. But consider how border screening initiatives as a concept are sold to the public: shorter wait times, none of the long lines, being able to keep your shoes and belt on. The headache of traversing that threshold between public terminal and departure gate is so comically inconvenient and intrusive that the biometric powered trusted screening programs practically sell themselves on user-experience alone.

Some of the more famous biometric border control deployments are so well known precisely because of their frictionless, ultra-convenient nature. To many, the convenience offered by biometric security screening in airports feels like the stuff of dreams at first blush. The aforementioned Happy Flow program in Aruba, which won the Radiant Pioneer Award last December, seems to be the current apotheosis of airport convenience: a barrier free experience from check-in to airplane seat.

What a multimodal border control future adds to the convenience/security equation is the possibility for every traveler—regardless of cultural practice, disability or even personal preference—to comply with crucial security protocols without having to inconvenience themselves while others pass them by. The multimodal future of border control, just like the multimodal future of biometric FinTech, is inclusive, comprehensive, secure and convenient.


Stay posted to FindBiometrics throughout June as we continue to examine the role of biometrics in border control and national ID. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and sign up for our upcoming webinar, Biometrics and the New Era of National Security and Border Control.

National ID and Border Control Month is made possible by our sponsors MorphoTrak and NEC Corporation of America.

June 8, 2016 – by Peter B. Counter