Welcome to the airport of the future, where your face is your passport

Facial recognition isn't just for the iPhone X -- it's revolutionising airport security and making long queues and passports a thing of the past.

Claire Reilly
Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
Expertise Space, Futurism, Science and Sci-Tech, Robotics, Tech Culture Credentials Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
7 min read
Facial recognition of Caucasian businessman
Getty Images

Australia is a bloody long way from the rest of the world. Fly from Los Angeles to Sydney and you'll be in the air for 13 hours. Tack on five more if you're starting in New York. And if you're coming from London, your feet won't touch the ground for about a day.

The point being, by the time you land in Australia, you'll be sick of traveling. You'll want to get out of the airport and to the country's excellent beaches as quickly as possible.

That's why Australia's Department of Home Affairs is at the forefront of smart border control technology. In 2007, the border agency introduced SmartGates, which read your passport, scan your face and verify who you are at the country's eight major international airports. Built by Portugal's Vision-Box, the gates get you out of the airport and into Australia with minimum fuss.

Watch this: Facial recognition is turning your face into your passport

Australia wants to make that process even faster.

During May and June 2017, the country tested the world's first "contactless" immigration technology at Canberra International Airport. The passport-free facial recognition system confirms a traveller's identity by matching his or her face against stored data. A second trial is set to start in Canberra soon.

Biometrics aren't just being used at border control. Sydney Airport has announced it's teaming up with Qantas, Australia's largest airline, to use facial recognition to simplify the departure process.

Under a new trial, passengers on select Qantas international flights can have their face and passport scanned at a kiosk when they check in. From then on, they won't need to present their passport to Qantas staff -- they'll be able to simply scan their face at a kiosk when they drop off luggage, enter the lounge and board their flight at the gate. Travellers will still need to go through regular airport security and official immigration processing, but all of their dealings with Qantas can be handled with facial recognition.

"Your face will be your passport and your boarding pass at every step of the process," Geoff Culbert, Sydney Airport CEO, said of the new development.


The cameras on SmartGates at Australian airports scan your face in real-time to match it to the photo from your passport.

Department of Home Affairs

This kind of biometric security wouldn't be possible without the high-tech makeover that passports have been given in recent years.

Since the League of Nations introduced the first "uniform" passport in 1920, the humble book of stamps has come a long way -- from machine-readable travel documents proposed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 1980 to the first electronic passports issued by Malaysia in 1998. More than 490 million ePassports -- each holding an RFID chip containing a digital copy of our personal information and biometric identifiers -- from 100 countries are now in circulation.

It isn't just passports getting updated for the 21st century; border controls are getting an upgrade too. Humans at border control are already being replaced with automated gates and biometric cameras capable of mapping your face in real time and matching it with a stored photo taken from your passport.

And soon, you'll be able to enter a country without carrying a physical passport -- or even saying a word to another human being.

That's not a gate, that's a gate


Goodbye immigration agent, hello biometric scanning. 

Department of Home Affairs

Since it introduced ePassports in 2005, Australia has been a trailblazer in passport and border control technology.

The country began rolling out SmartGates at arrivals terminals in 2007, expanding to departure terminals in 2015. These gates are now the primary method for processing travellers across Australia's major international airports. During peak hours, a single SmartGate can handle as many as 150 passengers an hour -- that's one person being processed through immigration every 24 seconds.

Under the SmartGate system, travellers arriving in Australia use a kiosk to scan their ePassport. The ePassport is a mix of old and new -- it still has physical pages, but the traveller's name, nationality and a digital photograph of their face are also stored on a microchip embedded in the centre page.

Once they've scanned this passport, the traveller then moves to the SmartGate for a face scan. The SmartGate's cameras measure biometric identifiers like the distance between eyes and between the nose and mouth. If the real-time facial scan matches the passport photo that was scanned at the kiosk, the traveller can pass through the gate and enter Australia.

Other countries have similar systems, though they were introduced later. The US Department of Homeland Security uses the Automated Passport Control system, which requires a final check by a border officer, as well as a Biometric Exit program that verifies passengers with facial recognition before they board. The EU handles movement of travellers from Schengen member states (essentially the bulk of EU countries) with a system called Smart Borders.

Speed and ease aren't the only reasons countries are future-proofing their immigration processes. Security in the high-stakes post-9/11 world is also driving the adoption of new technology.

The Australian government says SmartGates streamline the experience for travellers and free up border control officers to spend more time on critical "intelligence gathering, enforcement, and targeting activity, which are key to preventing threats at the border."

Research has also shown that humans have a weak record when it comes to matching faces. Passport officers couldn't match one in seven faces to the corresponding ID photos, according to a University of New South Wales study in 2014. That's failure rate of 14 percent.

"Properly captured and maintained biometric data should be more secure than a traditional passport," said Bruce Baer Arnold, a biometrics expert at the University of Canberra. "Because the biometric involves the face's overall architecture … the machine will often be more accurate than bored, stressed humans."

Your face is your passport

But the advances in biometrics and border control don't stop there. In 2015, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced it would test "contactless traveller" technology (originally known as the Cloud Passport), allowing travellers to pass through immigration without showing any kind of passport or paper travel document.

It's an iteration of Australia's current SmartGate system and the next logical step in digitisation. Similar to the SmartGate system, travellers have their face scanned at departure border control. But instead of being matched to the image that's just been scanned from their passport, that facial scan is biometrically matched to an image of the person in a database operated by Australia's Department of Home Affairs (DHA). If your face matches, you're good to fly.

The "contactless traveller" system is named for the absence of contact passengers have with border control officials. It's being tested at Canberra International Airport in a trial that is open to Australian citizens who hold a valid ePassport and, because it's a trial, passengers need to carry their passport in case there's a problem. After the trial, the DHA eventually plans to rollout contactless SmartGates in Australia's other airports for any international traveller with a biometric passport.

There is, of course, a risk that comes with the new technology. Your biometric identifiers -- the attributes that make you distinguishable from every other human in the world -- could soon be stored in the cloud and shared across multiple systems and by different governments. More people than ever before will have access to them. And one big set of data could make a tempting target for hackers.

What happens if these systems are compromised? You can change a password. You can't change your face.

The DHA didn't comment on how it secures its database, but said in an email that it "collects, uses and discloses biometric information in compliance with all relevant domestic law and international agreements."

Then there are the security experts who have warned about the potential weaknesses of facial recognition, including one IT and security expert who says biometric scanners can be fooled by clown makeup.

High Angle View Of Crowd At Airport

Australia has also conducted a "Face on the Move" trial to identify faces moving through crowds at the airport.

Getty Images

However, the DHA recently revealed tests of its biometric technology have had a high success rate. Its "Face on the Move" trial used facial recognition technology to identify 2,200 travellers at Canberra International Airport, with an average 94 percent success rate and "no identification errors."

The use of biometrics is well and truly entering the mainstream. Smart home cameras can recognise your face, depth-sensing cameras can unlock your iPhone, and even KFC has jumped on the trend, installing "smile to pay" technology that uses a diner's face to verify payments.

The Australian government has also greenlit a new plan to pull together photographs from every Australian with a driver's licence to create a new biometric database of its citizens. The idea is that the database will give law enforcement the means to quickly match and identify faces from CCTV and security footage to police crime.

Meanwhile, the DHA is already planning for the next generation of digital border control -- not just ditching passports at departure terminals, but rolling it out across more airports and even replacing paper passenger cards with digital options.

The passport has stood us in good stead for the last century and travellers have always been fond of collecting colourful stamps. But soon you won't have to worry about leaving your passport at the hotel.

Follow the Money: This is how digital cash is changing the way we save, shop and work.

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET's newsstand edition.