On the move: blockchain for travel? Yes, please

Blockchain technology, which offers a secure and decentralised digital ledger, has significant potential to improve the travel experience

Technicians monitor cryptocurrency mining rigs at a Bitfarms facility in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, on Thursday, July 26, 2018. Bitcoin has rallied more than 30 percent in July, shrugging off security and regulatory concerns that have plagued the virtual currency for much of this year. Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

The travel industry is currently buzzing with talk about investments in blockchain technology as it applies to businesses and particularly payment systems. Though it sounds like a sinister form of digital slavery, the technology has also been at the centre of talk about reducing friction at airports by developing a localised digital identity card database that is both secure and open to anyone to check for verification. Such a system would involve passengers having a digital “token” that contains all their information in encrypted form. In theory, a passenger could be verified by simply presenting themselves for biometric checks such as an eye scan, and such systems are already being seen in piecemeal form throughout the world.

Yet as travellers continue to be run ragged at airports and border crossings, and as someone who has lost their passport at the airport on more than one occasion, I have begun to imagine a system whereby my passport is securely stored at my blockchain address and not in my usual file of valuables, rucksack, handbag, hotel room safe or drawers at work.

After all, a passport is simply physical proof of a legitimacy which already exists. One shouldn’t need to carry the actual passport anywhere. Not only would this enable less faffage at the airport, but you would also be able to take trips on the spur of the moment and experience more of the freedom of travel and less of the drudgery. One would not have to exist in a kind of vacuum whenever the document is being renewed. One day, perhaps, the system will run through our online life almost invisibly, allowing bookings, online check-ins and visa applications, where previously we've had to stop and retrieve our passport details from the depths of our email accounts or piles of papers. and any other incidence where we have to stop and retrieve our passport details from the depths of our email accounts or piles of papers. Not to mention what this fluidity could do to the global economy, given that travel is the world's biggest industry.

Ideally, though we have to be careful what we wish for in terms of the use of our personal data, this system would be available for verification anywhere in the world. This means all the world’s passport and immigration agencies would be connected. The apparent beauty of blockchain is that the data is secure, so the system would be a case of technology being used in its correct form, which is primarily to support rather than control people. This would be far preferable, in my view, to microchips or any other form of digital implants or tagging.

Such a system, which could be extended to identity documents and education certificates in general, would be particularly useful to expatriates, immigrants and refugees. “The mass movement of people, particularly those fleeing conflict, has meant that many have no records of prior education attainment,” says Lorraine Charles, an Abu Dhabi-based research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School in the UK . “A certification system based on blockchain would be a significant benefit to refugees. It would give the learner a measure of control, rather being at the mercy of than the institution for verification of education certification. In other words, the individual would always hold verifiable proof of their education and qualifications, and at no cost.”

As a UAE resident who now has belongings on three different continents and a considerable amount of stuff in storage, demands by authorities, employers or educational institutions for verified documents are enough to put me and countless others off a transaction or opportunity altogether.

For anyone on the move, an alternative to the current system of verification and certification is necessary. There are still too many barriers to travel, work and education, and the process of notarising an attestation is too time consuming, costly and bureaucratic. The world is now mobile and our documents - or should that be blockuments? - must move with us.


Read more:

Flying into the future: how airports around the world are being redefined

Face scanning technology expected to replace immigration officers is trialled in Dubai

The National Future Forum live - global trends shaping tomorrow