Facing up to the challenge: is the passport obsolete?

Global air passenger traffic has grown dramatically in recent decades, exceeding 4 billion passenger journeys in 2018. Since 9/11, Advance Passenger Information (API) and Passenger Name Records (PNR) have been crucial to combatting passenger-based threats to civil aviation security. The smart matching of biographic data and greater use of facial recognition is the next step. As a consequence, passports and other traditional travel documents may become a thing of the past.

WCC has the know-how and core technologies needed to search and match biometric data in real-time, in combination with PNR and API information. 

Passport, Airports

Improving border control and security using technology


Border and passport controls

The dramatic growth in passenger numbers places increasing demands on Customs and Border Control Agencies. From among the billions of passengers, personnel must be able to identify bonafide business passengers, tourists, and asylum seekers. So distinguishing them from criminals, drug/people traffickers, and, of course, potential or known terrorists.

Organizations such as Interpol already manage global watch lists of lost or stolen passports and travel documents. They also maintain and exchange lists of wanted individuals. Data volumes are on the increase. At the same time, the demand for identity verification increases.  There is a need for near real-time searches to optimize passenger flows.

Traveler identification

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a UN agency, established in 1944. The 191 member states must ensure that they meet the UN Security Council norms for Civil Aviation. As a result, daily flights can operate safely and reliably in almost every region of the world.

One UN resolution, in particular, had a significant impact. Passed the day after the 9/11 attack, UN resolution “1373-2001” was a counter-terrorism measure. It not only enabled greater international cooperation but was also the stimulus for introducing API and PNR checks. 

The ICAO defines a common framework for identification management, called the Traveler Identification Program (TRIP). It describes five interconnecting elements:

Passports and Identification Management

The five elements of the ICAO Trip Management Strategy


  • Evidence of Identity – ensure that travel documents match genuine persons;
  • MRTDs – design, and manufacture of Machine-Readable Travel Documents that make forgeries or counterfeits impossible;
  • Document issuance & control – introduce processes to prevent the misuse of genuine documents;
  • Inspection systems & tools – to verify documents and identities;
  • Interoperable Applications – including API, PNR, and watch lists.

Individual countries already screen passengers before travel, providing visas or electronic travel authorizations. Over the years, innovations such as biometrics have extended this framework.

Biometrics and biographic data

Biometric data that can be machine-authenticated for check-in, security, immigration, and boarding is already in use. Examples include fingerprint and iris verification. Furthermore, biometric information and ePassports make Automatic Border Crossing (ABC) possible for EU citizens using ABC gates. However, despite these innovations, the demand for API and PNR checks will continue to increase.

The predicted widespread use of biometrics and facial recognition technology is becoming a reality. So there is a need for more powerful search techniques. Ideally, methods that can process a mix of biographical attributes and biometrics.

WCC’s HERMES already offers a flexible and future-proof API/PNR solution for dealing with passenger data. Based on the advanced Smart Search and Match technology used in WCC’s ELISE, our software can combine different forms of biometric and biographic information in a single matching process. However vast the dataset, HERMES will return matches within a fraction of a second.

Your face is your passport: facial recognition

Facial recognition is the next logical step. However, this introduces significant new challenges. Facial feature recognition is sensitive to camera position, lens quality, lighting, expressions, texture, hair, background. The recently released ISO 39794-5 addresses these problems.

The successful introduction of facial biometrics and face recognition to verify passenger identity will speed up passenger flows significantly. There are minimal risks for frequent passengers. A few pilot projects adopting these new standards are already underway, for example, “Happy Flow” in Aruba.

Looking to the future

Travel documents may evolve or even become obsolete. However, specialized software is needed to protect borders. Software such as HERMES can quickly, reliably, and securely manage the massive amount of passenger data needed for identity checks. WCC provides systems that can search and match biographic and biometric data in fractions of a second – even supporting future-proof features like face matching. So if you would like to find out more, please get in touch.

Article by: Sanjay Dharwadker
Published on: May 15, 2020

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