Why Do Some Travellers Resist the Use of Biometrics?

APAC Voices5 minutes readJun 27th, 2018

Most Australians support the use of biometrics in certain circumstances when travelling.

A couple of years ago, Unisys commissioned a research study ito understand the circumstances under which Australians were willing to use a biometric to verify their identity in airports. The study revealed that 75% were willing to use a biometric to confirm their identity at an automated boarding gate when boarding a flight and 71% were willing to use a biometric to identify themselves as a frequent traveller of low security risk. This is good news for government agencies, airports and airlines that are expanding the use of biometrics as part of a seamless and secure travel experience. But it begs a question.

Why are 23-26% of travellers unwilling to use a biometric to identify themselves when travelling?

At the recent Biometric Institute Asia-Pacific Conferenceii, Unisys posed this question to biometric practitioners, users and technology providers to get their views. Some respondents felt that unfamiliarity with and misunderstandings about biometric technology presented a significant barrier to broader acceptance in the travel environment.

But the overwhelming majority believed the primary issue was concern about privacy. In particular, they believed many travellers worried about:

  • How will their biometric data be used? What assurance do travellers have that their data won’t be used for purposes beyond what was originally stated? Will other government agencies be able to access their biometric records? Will their personal data be shared to third parties for marketing purposes?
  • How long will their biometric data be retained? Will the traveller’s biometric data be deleted after the journey completes or is it used as part of a long term travel history?
  • How will the biometric data be secured? Who will have access to the biometric data? What controls are in place to prevent disclosure of the biometric data to unauthorised individuals?

What can be done to address these barriers and expand acceptance of biometrics when travelling?

More and more people are familiar with biometrics as biometric technologies infiltrate more and more of their everyday lives. Mobile phones use face, finger and iris biometrics for access control. Voice controlled car entertainment systems, home personal assistants and telephone call centres are now the norm rather than the exception. While misunderstandings about what biometrics can and cannot do still exist, the overall level of understanding has improved dramatically over the past decade.

The trickier problem is dealing with traveller concerns regarding privacy.

It’s not for lack of trying. Government privacy regulations like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Australia’s Privacy Act set mandatory standards for the handling of personal data including biometrics. International associations like the Biometrics Institute have developed and promulgated guidelines to assist organisations implement biometric solutions that preserve personal privacy. And many organisations have made major investments in processes and technology to ensure the privacy and security of the biometric data they collect and maintain. Yet despite these efforts, privacy concerns continue to be the single most significant barrier to the broader acceptance of biometric solutions. Why is that?

  • Trust is hard won and easily lost. It only takes one breach to undermine public trust in an entire industry.
  • Travellers don’t understand the complex regulations, procedures and technologies that are used to protect their personal information. The combination of technical and legal jargon found in most privacy disclosure statements is a challenge for most citizens. And travellers typically don’t have visibility of what has been done to protect their information. As a result they tend to assume the worst.

So Unisys asked the biometrics professionals what could be done to address traveller privacy concerns. Some felt the answer was to ensure the adequacy of privacy-protecting systems and procedures. Others felt that stronger regulations were called for. But the majority of respondents believed the answer lay in communications rather than technology or regulation. Three key communication recommendations appeared consistently in their responses.

  • Education: Travel organisations can assure travellers their personal biometric data is protected against privacy concerns by using simple, jargon-free messaging to communicate the steps they have taken.
  • Transparency: Be very open about how the data will be used, who will have access to it and how long it will be kept.
  • Commitment: Let travellers know how important maintaining traveller privacy is to the government agencies, airlines and airports. Rather than ignore the “elephant in the room”, make data privacy a key feature of the services offered to the traveller.

The bottom line?

For government agencies, airlines and airports looking to biometrics to make travel more secure, safe and convenient, the key take away is to focus on travellers’ privacy concerns and communicate how those concerns are being understood, valued and addressed.


i  Unisys Security Index Report for Australia – Biometrics in Airports, May 2014
ii Biometrics Institute Asia Pacific Conference, Sydney Australia, 30-31 May 2018

Tags-   Airports aviation Biometrics Border security Unisys Security Index