Biometrics is a booming field of activity, set to have an impact across almost all business sectors in time and a major presence in some sectors already. Its importance in identity verification has implications across security and defence, banking and payments, healthcare and many other verticals. Specifically, biometric technologies are commonly being adopted across the travel and tourism sector and will be key to the success of a vaccine passport for travel during the current age of Covid.
The technology is increasingly being deployed as a way to scan faces, fingerprints and even eyes in airports, hotel receptions and payment points. Airports are the keenest adopters of biometrics as a way to verify tourists’ identities by crosschecking passport photos with facial scans. In a GlobalData report on the key trends in travel and tourism for this year, analysts assess that artificial intelligence (AI) can “dramatically improve passenger experience when in the airport.”
But the discussion around biometrics is also a controversial one. Among the concerns over cybersecurity and the privacy pitfalls of AI-powered facial recognition, there is also the question of how well the tech works for disabled consumers. The seamless travel experience promised by biometrics is not available for all customers, as it could be.
Can a vaccine passport for travel be truly universal?
A 2019 study by US non-profit MITRE found that biometrics which required holding a phone or laptop in a certain position in relation to one’s face lack usability for users with limited or no vision. It’s also known that those with a loss of dexterity may have trouble using biometric fingerprint technology, while someone with a voice or physical tremor could struggle with voice and face identification respectively.
“Technology that relies on facial recognition and other biometric data to screen people at, for example, airports, is an issue for the disabled community,” says health communication specialist Sarah K Stricker, who lives with multiple chronic health conditions. “I wish the companies rolling this tech out would consider how it interacts with disabled people and consider our experience, but I doubt that is happening.
“Studies have shown that biometrics can be unreliable in cohorts of people with certain disabilities,” she continues. “Also, a significant number of disabled people would be unable to provide the biometric data that is most often used.”
Stricker points to one estimate in a 2016 paper based on results from a UK study that around 241,000 Americans would be “unable to provide any of the three most common types of biometric data” in fingerprints, facial scans and iris scans. A study from 2018, she notes, also found that facial recognition through use of selfies had “very poor results” in successfully verifying identity in their disabled cohort.
The pitfalls are myriad. But the health comms specialist also recognises “mixed feelings” in the disabled community with regards to biometrics.
“I think it’s important to note that biometrics and vaccine passports related to Covid-19 are sort of set apart a bit here: many in the disabled community are at extremely high risk from Covid-19 infection (and) the vast majority of people are able to be vaccinated.”
Because of this, Stricker has mostly seen positive reactions to requiring vaccinations to participate in public life and travel.
Biometric travel documents during Covid
Nonetheless, some current examples of biometric travel documents leave a lot to be desired in the view of the disabled community. Examples include health passports being rolled out in the pandemic-hit US from the likes of biometrics provider CLEAR and digital healthcare platform SAFE.
“The major concern I (have is) that the data being collected and used alongside biometric identifiers for products like CLEAR’s Health Pass (is) both unreliable in terms of singling out people who were sick with Covid-19 and could be problematic and result in false positives for people with chronic illnesses,” says Stricker.
“Information like temperature, for example, is not a great predictor of who is infected. In addition, for people with certain autoimmune diseases, for example, temperature may not be a useful metric at all and could result in false positives when utilizing it to screen for Covid-19.”
Such false positives could wrongly deny people entry to restaurants, museums, sports venues and airlines currently using Health Pass in their screening processes.
Stricker also notes that not everyone is able to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, for instance those with specific allergies to components of the vaccine. For such people, there could be issues regarding their ability to travel or access places that have instituted vaccine requirements.
“Proof of vaccination is required for a number of activities we regularly partake in, and often people who are unable to be vaccinated can be exempt from these policies,” she explains. “I’m unsure how that will play out when proof of vaccination is required for more and more public participation.
“This group is not particularly large, but it’s still important to consider them when rolling out these policies (and) it seems like most of these biometric and health passport technologies were not developed with disabled people in mind.
“The language they use and their marketing made it pretty clear to me that there were no specific initiatives to safely and effectively include the disability community in their goal of ‘helping people return to their daily lives.’”
Stricker is here quoting from a statement from CLEAR’s CEO, and questions if the people being referred to are the fully healthy and abled.
Beyond travel, Stricker is worried how such Covid passes are being legally used by some employers to screen employees.
“Will employees who continuously fail checks for health reasons other than a Covid-19 infection have their jobs protected?” Stricker asks in an online piece. “Will employees in that situation have any other option but to disclose a disability they may not have chosen to disclose?”
Biometrics is booming
A vaccine passport for travel or health pass for work could see biometrics use expand even further. A report from Strategic Defence Intelligence forecasts the global government biometrics market will reach a value of $7.9bn in 2027. The cumulative market for global expenditure is predicted to reach $62.8bn over the same period, due to increasing demand for e-Governance services worldwide and the growing reliance on biometrics for identity verification.
Covid itself is driving the biometrics uptake in tourism, along with the increase in cashless payments. As GlobalData states, “this change in method of payment, spurred by Covid-19, will grow in significance for travelers and tourism companies” along with “the need for technology that reduces contact with frequently touched areas/items.”
From a tourism perspective, GlobalData believes money may be left on the table if biometrics aren’t utilised inclusively. Associate analyst at GlobalData Johanna Bonhill-Smith tells Verdict, “what disabled tourists likely desire and expect is largely in line with all general consumer demand when traveling right now. Covid-19 related travel restrictions mean that travelling in the current situation is still not as ‘simple’ as it was prior to the pandemic.
“Accessible and inclusive tourism are now key terms surfing the travel sector,” Bonhill-Smith continues. “Both these terms reflect on the fact that all consumers should now be active participants and be able to travel.
“Due to the increase in the use of contactless technologies and app-based engagement from both airports and airlines, these industries could include more additional options for disabled tourists. Businesses across the sector should be re-modelling travel apps to more effectively service and manage the post-pandemic traveller,” believes the analyst.
Designing an inclusive vaccine passport for travel
Better biometrics may be able to improve matters when it comes to a vaccine passport for travel. One disruptor which considers accessibility a key facet of their product development is the London-headquartered Onfido, an identity verification and authentication company that specialises in AI-powered biometric account verification.
The startup has produced a biometric-boosted vaccine passport for travel for hotel booking platform Sidehide. With a smartphone and a government-issued ID, Sidehide users are able to make a booking and verify their identity and immunity status. They can bypass the check in desk and head straight to their hotel room with no contact and no complications.
“A successful implementation of such health passports is predicated upon the fact that they cannot be traded, are privacy-centric, and are user friendly so the owner can easily access it,” explains Onfido head of biometrics Sarah Munro.
“Our technology is used to tie a physical human being to their digital identity by simply using a photo of their ID and a selfie. The digital certificate could be displayed with a simple ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Exempt’ result.”
For Munro, the biometrics industry should not drag its heels when incorporating disabled-friendly account verification technology to improve digital access.
“Biometric identification typically provides a seamless verification experience, but it can be problematic for those people with permanent, temporary or situational disabilities when their differing requirements are not considered,” Munro tells Verdict.
“The approach to digital accessibility is two-pronged: through inclusive design and accessible features. It simply cannot be implemented as an afterthought to pre-existing products and services. Having truly inclusive design involves ensuring that the needs of disabled people are considered from the start to the end of the design process.”
At Onfido, a study was carried out to better understand the usability of ID verification solutions such as their vaccine passport for travel, and how to improve their accessibility. The end result saw haptic vibrations and auto-face detection added to complement their screen reader standard, with vibrations informing the user when the action is complete.
“We have optimized the screen reader specifications to ensure that readout instructions are applied in a logical, specified order,” adds Munro. “Customisable features go a long way in overcoming the issues posed by biometric identity verification in a way that suits the needs of the particular user and expands digital access.”
“Usability and protection of individuals must be at the forefront of this initiative. Ultimately, it is about making the process accessible from beginning to end,” Munro concludes. “And it is something that we must continually work on to ensure that biometrics do not become a barrier to travel.”
By Verdict’s Giacomo Lee. Find out more in the GlobalData Thematic Research: Key Themes in Travel and Tourism 2021 report here.