Market Trends

Is Privatization the Future of Travel Security Technology?


When Crossmatch participated in the recent World Border Congress in Morocco, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of Casablanca airport. During the tour, one piece of the security workflow stood out as symptomatic of a new trend in the travel security industry.

After passing through physical security checks and standard border control procedures, travelers are put through a secondary check, which confirms the validity of their documentation and eligibility to enter their destination country. Interestingly enough, this final check is not performed by the Moroccan government. It was added as a redundant layer of security by the airlines, and has no connection to official processes or databases.

The incentive to do this comes through hefty fines levied by European countries for travelers who are ultimately turned around at the border – tens of thousands of dollars per person, plus the obligation to return the traveler back to their country of embarkation.

With penalties cutting into airline profits, it was determined that additional assurance was needed beyond the basic name-based database check performed by the Moroccan government.

A similar logic is driving new travel security procedures in the United States. In recent years, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has deployed kiosks at certain airports to speed up the entry procedure. The kiosks provide an automated form of the standard entry interview, shortening the time that travelers spend before an actual officer.

Unlike other travel facilitation measures such as CBP’s Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, however, the automated passenger kiosks are actually paid for by the airports. Seeing that travelers favored ports of entry where immigration procedures were faster—and spent more money in airport shops—airports approached the government with technologies which would provide a competitive advantage while allowing CBP to fulfill its statutory obligations.

The results are clear: airports with automated kiosks have reportedly cut wait times up to 40%.

In both cases, private companies have taken parts of the government-run security workflow into their own hands. In Morocco, new checks supplement the cursory exit procedures performed by the Ministry of Interior. In the United States, CBP’s processes were shortened by the addition of new technologies. While security is enhanced by both interventions, both are motivated primarily by profit.

Is this privatization of travel security necessary?

Some might argue that it isn’t. If the document checks performed by governments were comprehensive enough, airlines might not feel the need to supplement their work to avoid potential fines.

If governments focused on travel facilitation a little more, airports wouldn’t spend their own money to speed up immigration procedures. Some might argue that governments should answer to the private sector just as they answer to the traveling public.

Yet there is also a case to be made for this profit-driven type of public/private partnership. Airlines and airports can hardly expect governments to be on the front lines of innovation, particularly when those governments have no stake in the bottom line results.

When governments focus only on core immigration tasks, they subtly encourage the travel industry to take a more active role in the customer experience, which it ultimately derives a profit from. While there are limits to what the private sector should be allowed to influence and drive, a certain amount of innovation in security and travel facilitation can be a healthy thing.

The spotlight on privatization is likely to grow brighter in the coming months.

As CBP begins to roll out its plan to implement a biometric exit system in the United States, it is doing so with a set of assumptions about the role of airlines and airports – assumptions which were created through past experiences with privatized travel security arrangements.

It seems likely that this gradual trend of privatization will continue as long as the interests of the travel industry, governments, and travelers themselves align. When governments remain open to private sector interventions in security procedures, the travel industry will feel incentivized to drive improvements, which promote profitability.

Whichever way the trend goes, it is likely to play a growing role in how biometrics and other technologies are experienced by the public in the future.

Ben Ball is the Government Market Director at Crossmatch, where he oversees market intelligence and strategic outreach to government customers around the world. A ten year veteran of the Federal government, Ben was a Foreign Service Officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security.
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