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

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

  • Whenever passengers are invited to fill out their own data in free-form fields, there will inevitably be errors with applicant passport numbers or even names. Experience suggests as many as 15% to 20% of applications include such errors.
  • All the early ETA schemes began as biographics-only checks, meaning that they were limited to information about the traveler and did not include biometric security, which opens the door to potential fraud among the innocent typos.

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

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

A quick review of some of the world’s leading ETA schemes shows that this approach is gaining traction:

  • Australia’s recently renewed ETA process is already operational with a full IDV process accessible via its Australian ETA
  • New Zealand’s NZeTA now includes an optical passport scan and a photograph: a couple of steps in the right direction if not yet a full IDV.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently announced its plans to add both passport scanning and facial matching technologies to the ESTA

By 2024, we can expect to see the rollout of both the UK ETA and the EU ETIAS (Electronic Travel Information and Authorization System). The UK has already announced its intentions to deploy its existing IDV capability at the front door of this new ETA system. That could make the new UK system the first ETA globally to be built with biometric security embedded from the outset.

But that’s not the end of the story. What do governments plan to do with the data captured, 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 biometric and biographic ETA data; in others, there is still work to be done on how exactly these developments can be used to transform border processes. One example of this can be seen in airport arrivals halls, many of which are now home to 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 passport or other identity documents. But, wherever a fully-fledged, biometrically secured ETA process is in place, that match has already been done and communicated to the receiving border agency before the passenger’s arrival.

Do we need to match the face and document again at the border? Or would a simple facial biometric check at the border not be sufficient to link the arriving passenger with the matched data packet that the border agency has already received?

We at Entrust have been testing this concept via 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 opt to submit both biographic and biometric data remotely before travel. On arrival at the airport or railway station, respectively, a quick, simple facial match links the person to the data already submitted.

This is a simple idea with profound consequences for the future border and for improving the travel experience. It raises serious questions about the nature of border infrastructure and about where identity verification can and should take place in the travel continuum.

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

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