Depending on who you listen to, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin will either change fundamental aspects of people’s daily lives – financial services, healthcare, retail and, yes, travel – or they’re a sham, a prime example of much ado about nothing.
There is less debate, though, about the underlying system that powers those cryptocurrencies: blockchain. While models are still being developed and hypotheses tested, we’re starting to see consensus that blockchain may provide a viable – and valuable – architecture to improve nearly any system that relies on a transaction, whether that exchange is information, money or something else.
Much remains to be seen, particularly which concepts come to fruition and which fade away. And for those that do endure, will they represent a dramatic change to traditional systems – the revolution some are touting – or rather a subtle evolution?
As part of this month’s focus on blockchain, we’re aiming to unpack this abstract concept by sharing real industry examples of how this new decentralized ledger system could be put into action.
First up, a look at blockchain’s impact on traveler identification and security.
They’re tasked with both macro- and micro-analysis - figuring out how technology can make travel more secure overall, while at the same time less burdensome for individual travelers.
“What came out of our research is that border security is one of the highest pain points in the traveler journey,” says Liselotte de Maar, managing director of travel industry strategy for Accenture, the group’s professional services partner. “You’re standing in line, maybe you are going to a country you’ve been to multiple times, and you still need to do the same checks, everyone is asking you the same questions, etc.”
The idea is to give travelers a digital version of their proof of identity built on cryptographically linked data blocks – the blockchain – and distributed ledger technology so no one entity is in control of the data.
The traveler’s personal data is not stored on the blockchain, but what is stored is the proof that the particular identity has been verified.
Fundamentally, what blockchain technology solves is that digital signature problem
Drummond Reed - Sovrin Foundation
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The concept is known as a “self-sovereign digital identity” because the traveler is the only person in control of his or her identity information. The traveler decides what to share, when to share it and with whom.
“Fundamentally, what blockchain technology solves is that digital signature problem. Every government can publish the public key they use to sign a passport, and everyone else can verify that, without any one company being in control of that directory of public keys,” says Drummond Reed, a trustee of the Sovrin Foundation, an international nonprofit established to provide a privacy-focused blockchain protocol.
Sovrin is one of the entities identified in the World Economic Forum report as providing a digital identity initiative with the highest level of user control and vendor independence.
Travelers would enroll in the new system via their mobile phone, creating a digital identity by scanning their passport and adding certain biometric data, which may include a picture of their face, their fingerprint or their voice, into an app.
That identity would then need verification by a government authority before it could be used for travel. The traveler would share his or her public key – generated by the system – via QR code with the government agent, and the agent would add an attestation through a private key signature to that identity. That signed identity enrollment is then added to the blockchain.
Making the assessment on an individual’s data set – instead of what is your country of origin and what countries did you travel in before – is something governments are looking for and it can also be convenient for the traveler.
Liselotte de Maar - Accenture
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From this point on, the traveler could choose to share identity information with border agencies well before the date of travel to initiate an advanced risk assessment, pre-clearance and faster processing when they arrive at the border control site – thus eliminating the need to show original documents.
The intent is that private sector providers would also accept this new form of digital identity.
“Suppose my airline allows me to board with those same biometrics, and my hotel allows me to go straight up to my room because based on my face they recognize I have a reservation and I don’t have to show my passport at the front desk. And maybe based on the biometrics I can even enter my hotel room,” de Maar says.
“You eliminate a lot of paper checks, and you are giving the traveler choice to go through the journey without showing a passport, without showing a boarding pass, without showing reservation details at the hotel.”
Each time an entity accepts the traveler’s identification, that attestation is recorded on the blockchain, enabling the traveler to build up trusted “Known Traveler” status.
Along with streamlining travel for consumers, the idea is that this advanced screening and clearance of low-risk travelers would free border authorities to focus on passengers that are less well-known or that may present security issues. De Maar says partners such as Interpol have expressed a need for this sort of individualized risk assessment because it can provide a more accurate analysis than current practices.
“Making the assessment on an individual’s data set – instead of what is your country of origin and what countries did you travel in before – is something governments are looking for and it can also be convenient for the traveler,” she says.
SITA has been analyzing a variety of blockchain solutions for the past several years. SITA Lab’s lead engineer, Kevin O’Sullivan, says self-sovereign identity is a promising development, but he expects we may first see it adopted by the financial industry before it impacts domestic and then international travel.
“We’re talking to various vendors in this space. We’re working through the fine details of how it would work, what the user experience would be,” he says. “We’ll be doing some trials during this year.”
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Multiple vendors are developing solutions, including ShoCard, which partnered with SITA for a study on digital identity in 2016, and SecureKey, which is working with IBM to develop a digital identity network with Canada’s leading banks that will go live in April.
De Maar says the World Economic Forum working group will reconvene later this month to discuss next steps including the details of Canada’s pilot program with the Netherlands.
“We want to see how we can start small and scale fast,” she says. “Hopefully by this time next year we can say we have the first passengers going through these concepts.”