Digital identities – using biometric technology to unlock travellers’ personal information has never been more pertinent

25 May, 2020

In the 'new normal' of social distancing and the limiting of human-to-human interaction touchless technology adoption is a clear path to follow. Many businesses had already set off along this route ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, but rather than the obvious choice to cut investments to reduce costs, there is a strong argument that this journey should continue if they are to successfully adapt to the new environment.

Air transport communications and information technology specialist SITA revealed last week that it has stepped up its commitment to developing a permanent digital identity for air travel by becoming a Premium Donor of the Sovrin Foundation, the international non-profit organisation focused on the advancement of self-sovereign digital identity.

A digital identity is effectively information on an entity that is used by computer systems to represent an external agent whether that is a person, organisation, application, or device. We are increasingly aware of our own personal digital identities in keeping us safe online - anyone that uses digital channels leaves a footprint and a digital identity consists of various pieces of digital information about us that when put together, recognises us.

Digital identity has been one of the most significant technology trends on the planet and used effectively it can easily simplify our lives. In times of crisis - like right now - it can also be used to keep us safe when we travel as we increasingly see technology used as a replacement for regular human interactions.

The Sovrin Foundation is a decentralised, global public utility for self-sovereign identity. Self-sovereign means a lifetime portable identity for any person, organisation, or thing that allows the holder to present verifiable credentials in a privacy-protecting way. These credentials can represent things as diverse as a passport, an airline ticket or simply a library card.

Having joined the Foundation as a Founding Steward in 2018, SITA will now take a more active role in supporting Sovrin in the global adoption of self-sovereign identity. Its new expanded role will be a key part in the speeding up the development of a permanent digital identity accepted by governments, airlines or airports globally for use during air travel yet ensuring privacy and protection of the user's digital identity.

The IT specialist has already successfully deployed its Smart Path technology at airports to streamline the departure process through the use of a single biometric token, where a passenger's face is their passport at each step of the journey across an individual airport - from check-in to boarding.

However, the shift in focus in the next few years will see Smart Path integrated with self-sovereign identity, controlled by the individual and usable across governments, airports and airlines, streamlining the travel process even further.

In the coming years we can expect that the development of a universally accepted digital identity will replace the traditional passport. "This will allow travel across borders with any airline or airport while ensuring that you, as the passenger, remain in full control of your identity while providing actionable, trusted data only to appropriate parties such as border agencies," explains Gustavo Pina, director of the SITA Lab, SITA's strategic technology research arm.

The Sovrin Foundation is seeking to transform the current broken online identity system which is open to misuse and fraud. Using self-sovereign identities could ultimately lead to lower financial transaction costs, protect people's personal information, limit opportunity for cybercrime, and simplify identity challenges in a variety of fields including travel, healthcare, banking, IoT and voter fraud.

But, a key challenge will be to create harmonious digital bonds that secure the relationship between new mobile identities and broader society. Naturally, there has been strong opposition to allowing external agencies to access our private identity information. The current crisis may lower these hurdles if it means we can all travel in a manner that lessens our risk.