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Eurostar to roll out facial recognition for ‘passport-free’ travel to Europe

Facial recognition will make passports on the Eurotunnel an option rather than a necessity, but privacy campaigners have questioned whether gathering biometric data on passengers is necessary

Eurostar is to deploy biometric facial verification by iProov to allow Eurostar passengers to check-in and board without showing their passports.

By March 2021, travellers at London’s St Pancras International Station will be able to walk down a contactless, camera-lined “biometric corridor” without presenting any formal identification.

Passengers can opt to verify their identity in advance by uploading a selfie and a photograph of their passport, after which they receive a message to confirm their identity document has been secured.

The government-backed system is intended to speed up boarding, cut queues and eliminate physical contact during the Covid-19 crisis, and passports and tickets will only be necessary once customers reach their destination.

Privacy campaigners had questioned the need to introduce facial recognition cameras when travel on Eurostar already uses contactless technology.

Ilia Siatitsa, legal officer at Privacy International, said the level of intrusion of facial recognition technology is so high that the legality of its use should be questioned.

“Being efficient or quick for travelling [is] not sufficient justification for introducing such intrusive technology, particularly where there can be other alternatives,” she said.

Read more about rail travel

iProov will process images to ensure the identity and “genuine presence” of the passenger. The technology aims to verify that the user is a real person and not a photo, video, mask or deepfake. 

Andrew Bud, Founder and CEO at iProov, described the project a “world first”, and said the initiative has grown from its original aim to help “reduce travel congestion and keep passengers moving”, and is now going to help “keep people safe in a pandemic world through social distancing and contactless interaction”.

Ethical questions

Privacy International’s legal officer Ilia Siatitsa, said that “intrusive technologies” raise ethical and data protection questions. “Biometrics are a very sensitive category of data … We cannot change our facial characteristics, fingerprints, or our DNA.”

Facial recognition technologies by both police and private companies can have a “seismic impact” in the potential monitoring of individuals, she said. “With facial recognition, the level of intrusion is so high that the legality should be questioned to begin with.”

Siatitsa said travel and the processing of identity documents are already virtually contactless. “You go, you scan your ticket, you pass the security check,” she said. “It’s difficult to see … the justification for rolling facial recognition when there is already quite an efficient process in place.”

No need to ‘fumble’ with paper tickets

Bud said Eurostar’s previous system involved “fumbling around with scraps of paper and barcodes”.

Facial recognition technology is a secure and beneficial addition to public life. “The citizen knows that their face is to be verified, they consent to [it] and get personal benefit from being verified,” said Bud. 

Eurostar’s strategy director Gareth Williams said that eliminating the need for passports through the use of biometric facial verification will “enhance passenger experience” and “offer a live illustration of how innovation can benefit the high-speed rail and international transport industries”.

The initiative is part of a £9.4 million competition funded by the Department for Transport to advance rail travel and facilitate contactless journeys. On Wednesday, the department offered iProov a £388,000 grant to finalise developments.

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