Photo: Michael Melia/Alamy
The UK’s newly minted blue passports, one of the totemic achievements of Brexit, could soon become unnecessary, according to the UK’s chief border officer.
While Britons are once again queuing for officials to stamp their documents to allow them to cross the English Channel, Border Force director general Phil Douglas said developments in biometrics and data security have effectively made the paper passport redundant. – if it is still politically charged.
Speaking at the Airport Operators Association conference in London this week, Douglas said: “I want to see a world of completely unrestricted borders where you don’t really need a passport. The technology already exists to support that.”
While much of the world was locked down by Covid just as testing was becoming more widespread, automation schemes are becoming more and more common at airports around the world.
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At a fairly basic level this could mean expanding the use of electronic gates for passport holders – and trials are underway to see if the machines can now be used to process younger children in Britain. Pilot schemes are underway at London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, and Douglas said families with 10-year-olds could be able to use the automatic gates this summer, subject to the Minister’s approval.
However, the increasing use of biometrics, with facial recognition cameras operating throughout the airport, could allow travelers to walk through automatic gates without having to pause to fish for any travel documents. That could spell the death knell for blue passports, which were reintroduced in 2020 to replace the EU-standard burgundy passports issued in the UK since 1988. The home secretary at the time, Priti Patel, said that the blue passport “entwined with our nationality. identity, and I can’t wait to travel on one”.
Such “frictionless borders” will have greater appeal for the Border Force, whose staff went on strike on Wednesday. Demands on the Home Office branch are increasing, with political pressure to divert scarce resources to deal with the small boats crossing the English Channel.
Douglas said Britain would increase the use of advance information provided online, with next steps including a universal “travel permit” requirement for all foreign visitors to the UK. Douglas said: “In the future, you won’t need a passport – you’ll just need the biometrics.”
In many ways, that future is already here. Pilot schemes for air travelers everywhere from Aruba to Finland, the Netherlands to India have introduced features, according to Louise Cole, head of customer experience at the International Air Transport Association (IATA): “We’re working towards this for several years.”
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Domestic flights in particular allowed passengers to go through an increased chunk of the previously multi-document process, although often, as was the case on UK domestic flights, they still needed to scan a boarding pass to match the holder to photo taken during security.
Multiple pilot schemes using digital IDs in the US have allowed passengers to check in bags and board contactless, and some flying internationally with data stored in schemes such as Global Entry can through gates and borders automatically with facial recognition cameras.
Cole, who led New Zealand’s passport operations and is closing in on establishing a unified vaccination passport for Covid-era flight, said: “We’re trying to ensure global interoperability. A physical passport is the same anywhere – any border guard in the world will know what to expect.”
Iata and airlines are collaborating on a “One ID” plan where all information is entered by flight passengers – and international borders are finally pre-cleared – digitally before they leave home.
In this video, Cole said, “You don’t need to take a passport – just stop and show the airlines at the check-in counter or boarding gate that you can travel. We’re trying to use digital identity technology and leverage that to make an incredibly smooth experience.
“You clear security, they expect you – and the same for customs and borders at the other end.”
According to the Iata poll, 75% of passengers worldwide would be willing to give up passports for biometrics.
Douglas said the situation was “probably not too far out in Dubai” but warned that people “walking through the border with no passport” may not be as much closer to home.
He said: “The technology is there – but the public and ministers will be very interested in checking it for a while.”