A recent Times report highlighted how Phil Douglas, director-general of the UK Border Force, aims to replace the UK’s physical passport-based entry system with an upgraded, frictionless, facial recognition-based e-Gates system.
Current eGates System
The current eGates system that most UK travellers have experienced involves the use of facial recognition alongside a passport and automated gates. With this system, travellers must still queue before entering the automated gates and hold their physical passport into the machine while looking into a camera (which isn’t always successful). The current system relies on a match between data encrypted on the passport and the facial recognition camera image, and users of the system must be registered on a database.
The current eGates system can also only be used by travellers aged 10 and over who are citizens of the UK, EU, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea.
In addition to the queuing required and the fact that some users need several attempts, the current eGates system has several other issues. For example, unsuccessful attempts to use the system (of which there are many) still require manual checks, while major outages of the eGates system have previously caused chaos at UK airports (in May and September 2023).
The Upgraded System
The upgraded system highlighted by Mr Douglas in the recent Times report will mean that passengers can keep their physical passports in their pockets and be admitted to the UK just by looking into a camera linked to a centralised facial recognition system.
The benefits of the upgraded eGates should be less queuing (better for the airport and for travellers) plus a more ‘frictionless’ experience for travellers.
Already In Operation In Other Countries
Much faster and more frictionless systems, like the upgraded version intended for the UK, are already in operation in countries like Dubai and Australia. It’s been reported that the Dubai ‘Smart Gates’ system uses facial recognition for 50 nationalities and can enable travellers to clear immigration procedures in as little as five seconds!
Speaking at the Airlines 2023 conference in November last year, Phil Douglas highlighted how the eGates system changes are part of wider immigration process changes including the incoming Electronic Travel Authorisation (Eta). The Eta scheme, which opened for applications last October, is a requirement worldwide for visitors who don’t need a visa for short stays in the UK but who the government would like to know more about and be able to refuse entry if they may pose a threat. It’s envisaged that the application-style scheme (which will work even for those people “airside” at Heathrow for two hours between international flights), could enable the UK Border Force to make decisions about admission much earlier, and perhaps refuse ETas for those with a criminal history. Critics, however, have said that the scheme could damage UK airlines and tourism, particularly for Northern Ireland.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
For anyone who’s ever arrived home at a UK airport from a holiday or business trip, not having to fish out the passport after the flight, being able to avoid queues in arrivals for the eGates machines, then being able to just walk through in seconds sounds very attractive.
Avoiding the chaos of eGates outages is also likely to be very attractive to airports, passengers, airlines, and other stakeholders, although it does highlight the dangers of ever-reliance on technology. For a stretched UK government’s Border Force, technology that can cut queues and cut staff costs, and eliminate passport reliance while eliminating human error opportunities is also likely to be appealing. A system that allows travellers to complete immigration checks in seconds, like Dubai’s or Australia’s may also be an image that the UK wants to project as a country positioning itself as a tech centre.
However, some may see a more sinister, rigid, less romantic side to travel. Having a purely biometrics-based immigration procedure where your freedom to enter or leave is decided by whatever is recorded on a central database entry (and triggered by your face) is perhaps a more negative vision of the future. Police facial recognition trials, for example, have not been accurate or unbiased, and coupled with updated eGates and the Eta scheme (which is unsurprising given the government has prioritised immigration as a central issue), some may feel uneasy about a dystopian creep into travel and freedom.
For example, could ETa and purely smart borders mean those individuals whose central database details are marked with previous (perhaps minor) offences or other issues (e.g. social media posts) find themselves refused exit from or entry into countries? Could such a system be misused by governments?
Also, with the phasing-out of physical passports (and payments for renewals), and everything linked to a central database, could this open up the route for travel subscription payment systems? There is also the fear of security and privacy related to a border/immigration database that holds so much personal information about people.
The more distant future and fears aside, AI is now likely to be the key to enhancing and improving biometric systems and – whether we like it or not – such a system for borders is just one of many we will face going forward.