Is facial recognition replacing physical passports? 

New facial recognition software might render physical passports a thing of the past

In the UK, airports will test facial recognition technology (alongside passports) at the country’s ‘eGates’. This will allow the country to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, Australia and Dubai. 

If the facial recognition technology is successful, travellers to the UK may not even need to remove their passport from their baggage. Instead, the system will use advanced facial recognition to determine who may enter the country.  

Read more to understand what the UK and other countries are doing to leave physical passports behind, along with the arguments against ditching physical passports.  

Facial recognition in border crossings

The drive to utilise facial recognition is part of an effort to create an ‘intelligent border’, said Director-General of the UK Border Force Phil Douglas. This ‘intelligent border’ would utilise ‘much more frictionless facial recognition than we currently do,’ Douglas explained. 

The UK plans to trial the facial recognition software this year. Precise timing of the trial rollout is unclear.  

There are over 270 eGates in the UK’s fifteen air and rail ports. The software will be trialled before being rolled out to all 270 eGates.  

Though the eGates currently utilise facial recognition in conjunction with a passport scan, the new technology would make the passport scan unnecessary.  

Currently, eGates can be utilised  by British travellers as well as nationals from the EU , Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland or the USA. 

Britain is not the first country to experiment with facial recognition. The UK facial recognition scheme is inspired by places such as Dubai, which currently lets 50 nationalities enter its borders via its facial recognition software.   

Similarly, Australia’s electronic travel authorisation (ETA) works by allowing smartphones to read the biometric chip in passports in conjunction with a facial recognition scan, making it unnecessary for travellers to take their passports out. 

This measure has reduced passport queues in Australia, with the UK hoping to follow suit.  

The UK’s ETA regime has already been rolled out to Qatar. Additionally, it will include Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE from February 2024. The ETA will assist the UK government’s aim of quickening the immigration process.  

The planned ETA would accelerate the process by assisting the UK Border Force in its admission decisions. It will simultaneously also patch up issues with identification. Facial recognition would supplement the UK ETA.  

Criticism of facial recognition in passport software

It might be too soon to replace the physical passport with facial recognition, argue critics of the facial recognition software.  

Though facial recognition software has received praise for maximising efficiency at airports while maintaining the integrity of a border’s security apparatus, it has also been criticised by privacy advocates for jeopardising data rights and harvesting data.  

EGate users’ photos are stored by the UK Government, for a length of time. This varies based on the traveller’s citizenship status.  

If the traveller is a UK citizen, officials are required to block access to or delete facial photographs on the immigration and nationality computer systems. However, the UK Government can retain traveller images in the HM Passport Office. Additionally they can retain images in the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System (IABS). 

Noncitizens may have their images retained for an indefinite amount of time, until they become UK citizens and passport-holders.  

The US also retains the images of noncitizens for up to 75 years. Citizens will only have their images retained for twelve hours.  

Image retention has also led to concerns around potential data breaches of travellers images. Particularly if these images are stored on a database.  

Biometric data breaches would put travellers at a heightened risk of identity theft and hacking.  

Other critics of facial recognition argue that the facial recognition software is biased against women and ethnic minorities. 

A BBC investigation found that ‘women with darker skin are more than twice as likely to be told their photos fail UK passport rules when they submit them online than lighter-skinned men.’ 

Concerns around implicit biases replicated by facial recognition have led some researchers to worry that facial recognition software at the border might cause women and ethnic minorities more trouble than white male counterparts at the border.  

Will facial recognition replace physical passports?

Proponents of facial recognition software point to its efficiency, its already-existing use in Dubai, Australia and other countries to speed up travel times, and its method of technologically securing borders.  

Opponents point to privacy concerns around facial recognition. These include risks of data breaches, and bias within facial recognition against women and ethnic minorities.  

Given the division between the two camps, it is unlikely that the physical passport will be wholly replaced anytime soon.  

Yet, if concerns around facial recognition technology can be mitigated, the physical passport may yet be rendered obsolete.  

Also Read: A digital Schengen visa procedure?