Border management once consisted of an isolated encounter with an immigration officer at a border crossing point. Now it is a complex, layered process bristling with technology that extends beyond a simple passport check. As governments get more sophisticated about how they manage border security and secure immigration workflows, they are pushing the idea of a “border” far beyond the physical port of entry. This evolving approach demands innovative ideas and new technologies.
Travel authorization systems are an attempt by governments to vet passengers before, during, and after they arrive in a country. Often used in lieu of a visa, travel authorization systems require that passengers register with the government (usually through an online portal) so the data can be scrubbed against relevant databases throughout the travel continuum. This allows for situational awareness on a whole new level, giving governments the power to target enforcement actions and maximize their constrained resources.
Pioneered by Australia through its Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) system, the US government quickly followed with its own Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). After a long gestation period and several studies, the European Union recently announced its own system, the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS).
The growing use of travel authorization systems is not without controversy. The question of whether they constitute a de facto visa frequently prompts complaints about reciprocity and even threats of retaliation. Travelers express disdain about the added cost – Australian ETAs are A$20 for one year, US ESTAs are $14 for two years ($10 of that funds the Corporation for Travel Promotion), and an authorization through ETIAS is proposed to cost €5 for five years. There are worries about data protection, the effect on tourism numbers, and how all of this will work with Brexit on the horizon.
Yet the logic of heightened security has produced grudging acceptance of the value these systems bring to the travel system as a whole. Indeed, EU governments complained the loudest when ESTA was rolled out, but now have a system of their own. The tide of travel authorization systems probably hasn’t crested yet – we can expect that other governments will follow Europe’s lead in the near future.
As governments try to push their borders out ever further, the question of biometrically enabled travel authorizations is already a topic of discussion in some circles. Biographic information like names, dates of birth, and passport numbers can go a long way in pinpointing threats to the travel system, but they cannot produce a definitive identification. The common currency of criminal, immigration, and even defense records, is the fingerprint. Proactively running a traveler’s biometrics against appropriate data bases would equip border officials with a broader range of information by which to evaluate threats to the travel system.
Both policy and technical questions must be addressed before adding a biometric component to travel authorization systems. On the policy side, not all countries have passports which include fingerprints – the United States included. Those which do have biometrically enabled passports carefully guard the encrypted keys, securing the data so tightly that it is nearly impossible for other countries to use. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets the standards for passport biometrics, has yet to create a way for third countries to use them in a secure and seamless way. Even if those biometrics became accessible to the proper authorities overseas, most people lack the ability to read a passport chip at the individual as they apply for a travel authorization.
As travel authorization systems permeate the landscape of border management, a second wave of innovation is likely to emerge. Biometrics, mobile devices, electronic documents – all of these could forge a sort of compromise between the bolted-on systems like ETIAS and a security layer which actually promotes seamless travel experiences. In this sense, travel authorization technologies represent an opportunity for both government and industry to bring new solutions to the table to create a more efficient and secure travel system.