Identification, biometrics and blockchain

Hector Ureta

2018-01-31 16:09:58
Reading Time: 2 minutes

There are plenty of out-of-the-shelf research, innovation and solutions in the field of smart identification and biometrics. The recent 13th ICAO’s TRIP symposium (The International Civil Aviation Organization – Traveller Identification Programme) showed a number of challenges and opportunities in international air transport that I tackle in this post, especially focusing on their link with data-related tools and technology enablers like blockchain.

To start with, biometric identifiers are distinctive identifiers, incorporating measurable characteristics used to label, describe and identify individuals. Biometric examples include, but are not limited to, fingerprint, face recognition, DNA, palm print and iris recognition. The usage of those biometrics identifiers ranges from the face ID of an iPhone X, the super-secure super-accurate iris recognition to the very first usage of fingerprints in 1858. Biometrics is no longer part of science fiction. In some cases, and despite some counterexamples those biometrics identifiers can be understood as unique identifiers.

On the other hand, all of us experience daily issues with our identity (who are.. you?) and identity verification (is you.. you?) management.  Identity is the means by which you can claim nationality, rights, membership, ownership of property or even ownership of data. So far, identification is based on physical “certificates” issued by countries authorities that display basic data plus your picture; e.g., national cards, driver license, passports. If you lose any of them (hopefully not!), you have to follow an arduous process, usually requiring another secondary “valid” form of identification, which is also a physical document in most cases. Believe it or not, before the 2000s, identification verification was exclusively done via validating that the individual in the photo is the same as the document holder. Fortunately, in the new century, electronic passports (“e-passports”) and some national ID cards started being used. These contain embedded electronic microprocessor chips which then contain biometric information that can be used to authenticate the identity of passport holder. By 2008, only 60 countries used them.The figure as of 2017 is around 120.

In what relates to air transport, identification and border control processes are (obviously) imposed in order to ensure overall security. Identification and identity verification is mandatory for international trips. In Europe, those rules lead to far from enjoyable passenger experiences and at the same time hinder airport kerb-gate metrics. Physically carrying and showing your (e)passport is required. Is there not there a quicker and less stressful way available? (One hint: biometrics.)

Regarding passports, they are currently issued by national authorities. What are the inherent risk on countries relying on others’ processes for issuing passports? Is it sensible to simply ban all citizens from specific countries in which the passport issuing process is not reliable? Is there not any better way to manage this quality check among countries? From the technical perspective, there are a number of solutions involving identity claims residing on blockchain. These are solutions that achieve decentralization, executable contracts, secure data encryption. I foresee in the mid-future a complete digital ID through which we could control access to everything: not just passports and identification, but also our bank accounts or any other information such as boarding passes. This digital ID would allow us to consolidate and securely manage the various bits of our information used for different purposes. All of this information would be stored as part of a distributed ledger. It would simplify our lives and save time at border passing points.

Let’s see what happens in the future, but the biometrics+blockchain looks like it is here to stay!

Author: Hector Ureta