It has happened to the best of us. The last-minute racking of brains on arrival in the UK to try to remember where the passports were packed, followed by the panicked fumbling all the way to the bottom of every compartment of every bag.
That may all be in the past though, should plans reportedly proposed by the government’s borders agency go ahead, with the need to present the document on arrival in the UK being replaced by facial recognition technology.
Phil Douglas, the director-general of Border Force, said he had been “really impressed” by a e-gate schemes in Australia and Dubai.
“I had to apply for an electronic travel authorisation in advance and used my smartphone to read the chip in my passport. That sent the image of me in the chip to the Australian authorities. When I arrived in Australia, I didn’t even have to get my passport out of my bag. It is a really interesting concept,” he told the Times.
The paper reported that he said he wanted to create an “intelligent border” that used “much more frictionless facial recognition than we currently do”.
According to the Times, trials are expected to begin at airports this year, with a procurement process for the hardware needed to introduce the system across the country due to follow if it succeeds.
Douglas has been touting the potential benefits of biometrics and data security in managing the UK’s borders in recent months. In February 2023, he suggested the paper passport was becoming largely redundant – even as some celebrated the post-Brexit return of the blue document.
He told an audience at the Airport Operators’ Association conference in London at the time: “I’d like to see a world of completely frictionless borders where you don’t really need a passport. The technology already exists to support that.” Douglas added: “In the future, you won’t need a passport – you’ll just need biometrics.”
The Times reported that biometric details of British and Irish travellers are already held after being obtained in the passport application process.
Speaking to the paper, Douglas said: “We will know a lot more information about people upfront. We will know if they’ve been in the UK before. We’ll know what their compliance with immigration laws is. And we’ll know if there’s any records of them on our security systems. So there will be some people who won’t be getting on the plane.”
According to polling carried out by the International Air Transport Association in 2022, 75% of passengers worldwide would be happy to ditch passports for biometrics.
Speaking last year, Douglas acknowledged some may not be keen to see people “waltzing through the border with no passport”. He said: “The technology exists – but the public and ministers will be quite attached to having them checked for some time.”