How does biometric facial recognition at electronic airport gates work?

Sep 29, 2021

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Editor’s note: This guide has been updated with new information.

Picture this: You’ve landed at London’s Heathrow airport and you’ve headed quickly to the electronic passport eGates to pass through the immigration queue as fast as possible. You insert your chip passport, look straight at the camera, ready for that gate to open so you can be on your way.

But instead, you get an error message, and you’re sent to a frustratingly slow-moving queue to be processed manually.

The eGates have worked for you before, so why didn’t they work this time? This may be because in this instance, the facial recognition software did not work.

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How is facial recognition supposed to work?

When you slide your passport into the electronic gate, it scans the photo page, including the photograph of your face. The camera then takes an image of you standing there and matches the two together to check it is the same person.

This happens because the facial recognition software reads the geometry of your face in both your passport photo and the person at the gate, taking into account things like the distance between certain parts of your face (like nose to chin) and identifying facial features called “landmarks”, according to leading Cyber Security firm, Symantec.

This creates what’s called a unique “facial signature”. The machine matches the two facial signatures — a bit like a waiter comparing the written signature on a bill to the signature on the back of the credit card used to pay.

If the facial signatures match, the gates open and away you go. If they don’t, you receive the dreaded error message and you are sent to a manned desk where a human can check your face against your passport photo. Your immigration wait time will be a bit longer.

If you have changed a feature of your appearance like your hair colour since the photo was taken, it shouldn’t affect the facial recognition as the rest of your facial signature is still the same.  However, if you have changed the shape of your face since your passport photo was taken, for example because of surgery, the machine may not be able to match the facial signature. If your passport photo has a big bushy beard covering your chin and you’re now clean-shaven, the eGate might struggle to match the two chins.

Related: What you need to know about biometric privacy

Heathrow Terminal 5. (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

British Airways has been using this technology for boarding domestic passengers at Heathrow Terminal 5 for many years. The reason is because it doesn’t want domestic passengers boarding the wrong international flights that depart from the same terminal, or international transit passengers being able to board the wrong domestic flight without the proper border checks at the other end. So when each domestic passenger passes through security, a biometric image of their physical face is recorded and linked to their boarding pass.

When the passenger boards their domestic flight, another biometric image is taken, with the technology matching up the first and second images to ensure the passenger is the same person. If the photos match, the passenger boards the flight without perhaps even realising the technology is operating. If the photos don’t match then the passenger is sent to a physical staff member who can manually check the passenger is boarding the correct plane and the passport is correct.

Related: Star Alliance plans to introduce network-wide biometric technology in 2020

British Airways is planning to use this technology for international flights at Heathrow, following successful trials of the technology on its flights departing from the U.S. London’s Gatwick has successfully trialled using biometrics for boarding easyJet passengers and says it is committed to rolling out the feature to other airlines at the airport over the coming years following overwhelmingly positive feedback from the trial.

Bottom line

Facial recognition technology is expanding. Following its successful use by British Airways at Heathrow and easyJet at Gatwick, among others, you might expect more technology and less human interaction when boarding flights at U.K. airports in the coming years.

Featured image by British Airways

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