by Pat Brans

Schiphol CIO Albert van Veen interview – Replacing your passport with facial recognition

May 18, 2016
IT StrategyTransportation and Logistics Industry

Schiphol Group CIO Albert van Veen certainly stays on top of how airports around the world are using technology today and how they will be using it in the future with his responsibilities as chairman of the Airport Community Recommended Information Services (ACRIS) Working Group within Airport Council International (ACI). Here Schiphol airport CIO van Veen discusses the future of airport technology and how it can improve the experience for the customer.

What’s the most exciting thing you’re doing now at Schiphol Group? Albert van Veen: We want to be the best airport in the world; and we want to do that by leading in technology and open data for a seamless passenger journey. One of our most important programmes right now is the “Happy Flow”, a biometric boarding flow. We are currently piloting this in Aruba, together with KLM and the military police and we would like to implement this at Schiphol as well.

Happy Flow involves taking one token to identify passengers, so passengers can then move through the airport without showing the passport all the time. The token we are currently using is the face, through facial recognition software.

You show your passport once. We read your digital picture, which is on the communication chip in your passport. From then on, wherever you would normally need to show your boarding card or passport, you just show your face. At Aruba we use facial recognition technology to link you to the passport and boarding pass.

Would the passenger register manually? Albert van Veen: In the future, what we could imagine is that your Airport app on your phone can use your inbox to retrieve your flight details and give travel tips, such as what the best time is to go to the airport. Of course you would have to authorise the app to check your inbox. Google is already checking your inbox, so that’s nothing new.

If you authorise the app to do so, a few hours before your flight, the app can send an alert that you are on your way to the airport and that you have a valid passport with you. Once you get to the airport, we can perform identification through biometrics. You won’t need to show your passport at all.

This is what we call “seamless flow”. This process increases the efficiency of the airport, and it makes things easier for the passengers. On top of that, the system improves airport security by allowing the background check in advance.

Without hard deadlines, quality is more important then speed, our ambition is to implement this kind of biometric flow by 2018 – maybe not for the whole airport, but for a group of passengers.

Are you addressing ethical issues and the different sensitivities and laws in different countries where you have stakes in airports? Albert van Veen: What we are planning to do is give the passenger the choice to use the system or to use the current way of boarding. The passengers will “opt-in” to use the biometric flow.

You can imagine two separate flows of passengers – those who opt in and those who don’t. So you’ll have two separate queues – those who are recognised by their face, and those who walk through with their passports and boarding cards.

But even with the opt-in group, we have to make sure they understand exactly what information they’re sharing. We will only use the information from the passport we need to use; and we will delete the information immediately as the passenger leaves the airport.

One of our challenges is to show the world that the new system with biometrics is absolutely secure and privacy proof. To do this we would have to get approval from the government.

How can I be sure that you will delete my data after I leave the airport? Albert van Veen: We are still working out details. But for example, you can make sure the system automatically deletes the data. Then you would have auditors that come check that the systems are working and that the airport is complying with the standards. All of this will be checked and agreed with the government and privacy authorities.

There is no purpose for the airport to keep the information anyway. There is no commercial information. The only information is biometrics.

By the way, most people do their banking online. Your browser could read your banking information and do malicious things with it. But if that happened just once, nobody would ever use that browser again. Technology providers rely on markets trusting them, so they do all they can to comply.

How good is the facial recognition software at recognising you when you make different expressions? Albert van Veen: We’re doing a lot of tests and pilots in that area. Furthermore, facial recognition is becoming the standard at several other airports in the world. In the future you can also think about additional identification – for example, fingerprint recognition. In some countries passports also hold a digital copy of your fingerprints.

If a passenger can’t be identified through facial recognition, and fingerprint recognition also fails – and that failure rate should be very low – then the passenger would go to an airport officer.

Would you give any of this information to retailers? Albert van Veen: No we won’t. Our business case is to make the flow of passengers much easier. This makes the airport more efficient and more pleasant for the passengers. There is no business case for us to use information for other purposes, such as with the retailers. There are data privacy issues around this.