Biometric ETA is Here to Stay: Capturing Rich Identity Data Before Travel

An Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) is not a visa; it is a simpler, faster and mostly automated process by which visa-free travelers declare their identity information before leaving home. A concept that started with Australia’s ETA and the US’s ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) has been surprisingly slow to catch on in other countries, given its promise to fill a significant data gap of entry. But now Canada and New Zealand are on board, soon to be followed by the UK and the EU.

Early ETA iterations tended to rely on self-completed online forms. This is simple and quick for the traveler, but has two significant drawbacks:

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  • Whenever passengers are asked to fill in their own data in free-form fields, there will inevitably be errors with the applicant’s passport numbers or even names. Experience shows that 15-20% of applications contain such errors.
  • All early ETA programs started out as biographical verifications only, meaning they were limited to traveler information and did not include biometric security, which opens the door to potential fraud among innocent typos. .

Thanks to recent improvements in biometric technology, both of these problems will soon be behind us. The Near Field Communication (NFC) capability built into most smartphones can turn your iPhone or Android into a very effective passport reader. Additionally, the explosion of face-matching and liveness technologies means that requiring passengers to submit biometrics as well as biographies is no longer a pipe dream.

In short, a well-managed remote IDV (identity verification) service, integrating NFC, face matching and liveliness, can add both data automation and biometric security to any ETA or similar process.

A quick look at some of the world’s leading ETA programs shows that this approach is gaining traction:

  • The recently renewed ETA process in Australia is already operational with a full IDV process accessible through its Australian ETA
  • from new zealand NZeTA now includes an optical scan of the passport and a photograph: a few steps in the right direction if not yet a full IDV.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently announced plans to add both passport scanning and facial recognition technologies to ESTA

By 2024 we can expect to see the rollout of UK ETA and EU ETIAS (Electronic Travel Information and Authorization System). The UK has already announced its intention to deploy its existing IDV capability at the gateway to this new ETA system. This could make Britain’s new system the first ETA in the world to be built with biometric security built in from the start.

But that’s not the end of the story. What do governments plan to do with the captured data and how can it be used to improve both border security and passenger facilitation?

In some cases, downstream immigration systems have already been updated to handle rich ETA biometric and biographical data; in others, there is still work to be done on exactly how these developments can be used to transform border processes. An example of this can be seen in airport arrival halls, many of which now house eGates (in Europe) or kiosks (in North America). The central function of these gates and kiosks is to match the face (or fingerprints) of arriving passengers with their passports or other identity documents. But, wherever a comprehensive and biometrically secure ETA process is in place, this match has already been made and communicated to the receiving border agency prior to the passenger’s arrival.

Do we have to match the face and the document at the border again? Or wouldn’t a simple biometric facial check at the border be enough to link the arriving passenger to the corresponding data packet that the border agency has already received?

At Entrust, we have tested this concept through the Chain of Trust pilot with the Canada Border Services Agency and (with our partner, iProov) in the SmartCheck pilot for Eurostar. In both pilots, participating passengers choose to submit pre-trip biographical and biometric data remotely. Upon arrival at the airport or train station, respectively, a quick and simple face match connects the person to the data already submitted.

It’s a simple idea with far-reaching implications for the future frontier and for improving the travel experience. This raises serious questions about the nature of the border infrastructure and where identity verification can and should take place in the travel continuum.

Biometric ETA has already arrived and is here to stay. Now is the time for governments and industry to work together to ensure we deliver all the downstream benefits it promises.

To learn more about how Entrust enables seamless cross-border travel, visit:

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*** This is a syndicated Entrust Blog Security Bloggers Network blog written by Jon Payne. Read the original post at:

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