Biometrics: The New Normal in Global Employee Travel

Anyone who has suffered through long screening lines and customs checkpoints can attest: International travel is on the rise, and it’s not just due to tourism. Many of those traveling abroad are digital nomads moving from location to location on work assignments, or traditional remote global workers traveling between work and home country. Outbound international travelers from the Americas alone are expected to increase by a third over the next 12 years. Amidst a volatile global geopolitical environment, this growth means mechanisms for safer travel have never been more important.

From what many viewed as a dubious reality a decade ago, the use of biometrics has evolved today into a standard security practice at most airports in most countries. And the traveling public, while perhaps initially hesitant to hand over their personal information, now embraces the idea of capturing and sharing personal data across countries, especially if it means greater travel safety and an added convenience in crossing borders. A 2015 Google study found that nearly half of U.S. citizens would provide their biometric data if it meant expedited travel across multiple countries or passport assistance; more than two-thirds would submit to a background check.

While the adoption of biometrics is a positive step in improving travel safety, a globally connected approach should be the ultimate goal.

A recent World Economic Forum white paper outlined a vision for future international travel in which travel is based on the individual and not the legacy system of the country of origin. This so-called digital borders concept would move “the entire process of border management over time to a wholly automated, electronic platform, built on verified biometric data; the cross-border movement of people will not only become more accurate and efficient but also will enable public safety officials to direct more attention and resources to the identification of threats,” according to the authors. How could remote workers benefit from a digital borders approach? Rather than having to register in multiple countries’ trusted traveler status programs, a uniform “safe traveler” profile could aggregate all their information and share it across countries when booking and traveling. Pre-vetted regardless of the arrival and departure destination, traveling workers could move about with fewer delays and hassle (and save the expense from registering for up to 12 different individual countries’ pre-screening programs).

With greater access to personal data comes risk, however. Counterfeiting personal features – like one’s fingerprints or a person’s iris – is possible, though not easy. Biometrics data breaches have also occurred. In 2015, a data hack exposed 5.6 million fingerprints in the Office of Personnel Management. Redundant security systems provide an added layer of data protection, but it’s clear that the traveling public is increasingly willing to take those calculated risks in return for a safer, more convenient, seamless travel experience across borders.

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