Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Apple's secret plan to join iPhones with airport security

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed September 19, 2012
Apple's vision for its app, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, shows an icon in the screen's lower right labled "iTravel."<br/><br/>Apple is releasing a mobile wallet app called Passbook which could lead to some of the ideas suggested in these iTravel patent schematics, which were submitted in 2008. The patent was granted last July.<br/><br/>"Empty pocket" travel apps would eliminate the need to carry credit cards, airline tickets, boarding passes, baggage claim stubs, car or hotel reservations, or even personal identification. Click through the gallery to see more. Apple's vision for its app, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, shows an icon in the screen's lower right labled "iTravel."

Apple is releasing a mobile wallet app called Passbook which could lead to some of the ideas suggested in these iTravel patent schematics, which were submitted in 2008. The patent was granted last July.

"Empty pocket" travel apps would eliminate the need to carry credit cards, airline tickets, boarding passes, baggage claim stubs, car or hotel reservations, or even personal identification. Click through the gallery to see more.
Apple's vision for 'empty-pocket' travel
Travel management
Travel management
Baggage and ticketing counters
Counter kiosks
Unmanned kiosks
Security check points
Identification and boarding passes
Security check points
Boarding gate
Boarding gate
  • Apple releases Passbook travel/coupon app Wednesday
  • Mobile technology opens door to "empty pocket" travel
  • Apple patent includes unprecedented airport security function
  • Expert: Hackers would target electronic passports on phones

(CNN) -- What if you found yourself stuck alone at a faraway airport -- with no money, credit cards or ID? How easily could you fly back home again?

You might survive if you had a smartphone. Emerging "empty pockets" technology is increasingly allowing travelers to use their phones to make purchases, book flights, check in and board planes.

Wallets? They're so 2008.

Delta, American and United are already big into electronic boarding passes on smartphones, and stragglers like JetBlue are planning e-boarding programs in the near future.

Google and Intel's new iPhone killer?
Evolution of the iPhone
iPhone 5: Thinner, faster...better?

What's next? If some visionaries have their way, the future of mobile travel will touch virtually every key activity at the airport -- including security and U.S. passports. Smartphone technology might improve airport efficiency and help ease the pain from skyrocketing traffic predicted in the next 20 years.

But is a post-9/11 world comfortable with the idea of merging personal cell phones into the airport security network?

Apple -- still basking in the afterglow of last week's iPhone 5 curtain raiser -- is also unveiling Passbook, an app which organizes e-boarding passes, flight reservations, coupons and other documents.

But Apple has a much more grandiose plan for its empty pocket dreams, according to public U.S. Patent and Trademark Office documents. Read the patent document (PDF).

For example, imagine checking bags with your cell phone -- or passing through security by flashing an official driver's license or U.S. passport displayed on your phone.

Outside the airport, envision using just your phone to rent a car or to check into a hotel. How about using your phone as an electronic hotel room key?

But let's get real, say industry experts and government officials. As cool as all these ideas sound, extending Apple's technology and influence to airport baggage tracking and TSA security would be unprecedented.

"I'm always kind of staggered by the scale and complexity and the ambition that they have," says mobile phone industry analyst Nick Holland of Yankee Group.

As you might expect from the secretive folks at Apple, they wouldn't talk to CNN about the patent documents. But we did grab some time with "Apple Insider" reporter Neil Hughes, who covers nothing but Apple, including its patents for future products.

"Security may be the biggest issue," says Hughes. Carrying all your personal ID and travel documents on a single device would be very tempting for skilled password hacks, says Hughes.

Related story: Your smartphone will eventually be hacked

The concept

The 2008 patent application was approved in July and filed under the working title "iTravel." Hughes suspects the iTravel concept will be folded into Apple's Passbook app, which will be available for download on Wednesday. Right now, Passbook will store electronic versions of airline boarding passes which will automatically pop up on iPhone screens when you arrive at the airport. The phone knows where you are, thanks to geo-locator technology.

That aspect alone will make a lot of gadget-geeky travelers feel all gee-whizzy inside.

Even more gee-whizzy: The patent calls for iPhones to automatically check in luggage when passengers approach an airport baggage check-in kiosk. (See details in the photo gallery above.)

Would security benefit from smart-phone based e-passports and e-drivers licenses? Would they increase speed, efficiency or security at TSA check points?

Currently -- as most of us know -- TSA agents briefly examine government ID and boarding passes as each passenger presents their documents at a checkpoint at the end of a security line.

Related story: Apple's secrets aren't so secret anymore

Under Apple's patent, a traveler's phone would automatically send electronic identification to a TSA agent as soon as the traveler gets in line.

While each traveler waits in line, TSA agents would examine the electronic ID at an electronic viewing station.

Next, at the X-ray stations, a traveler's phone would confirm to security agents that the traveler's ID had already been checked. Throughout the process, the phone photo could be displayed on a screen for comparison with the traveler. Facial recognition software could be included in the process. (See details on Apple's proposal in the photo gallery above.)

The patent documents offer a surprising number of details which open doors to key questions about the system, but Apple declined to discuss the patent.

The TSA wouldn't comment either on the viability of Apple's plan. But other government officials, aviation authorities and longtime industry experts say Apple faces at least three high hurdles if they want to see this idea to fruition.


Several experts say a key question that must be answered is: How would you prove that the phone is yours? In other words, how would you prove that the e-passport is actually you?

To get around this problem, future phones or electronic ID may require some form of biometric security function -- like fingerprint matching.

In general, passports must be designed to be difficult to copy. Recent security changes to U.S. passports have included a hidden radio frequency identification chip to hinder counterfeiters. The chip includes the same data as the paper passport, a unique chip ID number, a digital version of the passport holder's photo "which will facilitate the use of face recognition technology at ports-of-entry," according to the State Department website.


Any company that intends to create an official electronic ID will have to work closely with countless government authorities to come up with secure, verifiable standards. Think about the complexity of that idea across 50 U.S. states and all the nations that travelers visit each year.

An electronic passport would have to be approved by an international standards organization, and it would have to be usable from country to country, according to the U.S. State Department, which oversees U.S. passports.

There are ongoing government efforts aimed at using technology to enhance passport security and convenience, according to a State Department official.

But the State Department says a smartphone portable e-passport is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon.

"We're not at a point where the government is going to go digital for any of that stuff," says Hughes, of "Apple Insider." Then he laughs and says, "I mean, I'm not even allowed to laminate my Social Security card."

Related story: Opinion: Airport Wi-Fi and mobile services are lacking


Apple's patent calls for the placement of special kiosks around the airport which will automatically exchange data with your phone via a close range wireless technology called near field communication (NFC). Apple phones -- including the new iPhone 5 -- don't include NFC, but they eventually would, according to the iTravel patent.

Related story: NFC isn't ready for prime time

If consumers, airlines, airports and the TSA don't embrace the NFC kiosks, experts say it's unlikely Apple's vision would become reality.

"First you would have to sell industry on Apple's idea, says Hughes. "Then you'd have to sell it to travel consumers."

Case in point: Google Wallet, a mobile phone app which allows people to make purchases with their NFC-enabled android phones. You set it up by attaching your Wallet account to your credit card. Then, you wave your phone near a special NFC-enabled point-of-purchase terminal, and voila! It's paid for.

Most NewYork City taxis take Google Wallet. Travelers using Newark Liberty Airport can tap their Wallet-enabled phones at the New Jersey Transit rail station and at New York's Penn Station. Many cabs in San Francisco also are Wallet-friendly. Also, using Google Wallet will get you access to special discount offers. Google isn't ruling out adding more travel features to Wallet -- like e-boarding passes. "A wallet can hold all kinds of things," hints Google's Nate Tyler. "Things are absolutely in development."

A little more than a year after launching, Google Wallet has about 200,000 NFC point of purchase terminals nationwide, according to Google.

Although the concept may be ahead of its time, analyst Holland says Google Wallet remains less than successful because there simply aren't enough terminals. "They're probably about three years premature," Holland says.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem," says Hughes. "You need to have the NFC kiosks there and you need to be aware of it and the stores have to invest in it, so sometimes it just doesn't catch on."

Along with making a buck, Silicon Valley appears to be trying to make travel more convenient through smartphone technology. That makes sense, because travelers will need all the help they can get to plot a course through increasingly crowded airports.

The number of yearly U.S. commercial airline passengers is expected to nearly double to 1.2 billion by 2032, according to the FAA. As increasingly complicated smart-phone partnerships evolve between the tech world and the sprawling travel industry bureaucracy, it looks like growing pains will be unavoidable.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:47 AM EDT, Mon October 8, 2012
In the past 10 years we've seen cell phones transform into electronic Swiss army knives with a wild variety of functions and features.
updated 8:03 AM EDT, Tue October 9, 2012
If you're like Derek Smith, you spend a lot of time on your smartphone. Then again, maybe nobody is quite like Derek Smith.
updated 10:03 AM EDT, Sat October 6, 2012
I am part of a dying breed. I am among a quickly shrinking slice of Americans who have yet to step foot in smartphone land.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Wed October 3, 2012
If you're looking for a harbinger of the zombie apocalypse, look no further than all those people on the street pecking at their tiny, handheld windows into a private world.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Tue October 2, 2012
There are many ways to lose or ruin your smartphone. Forgetfulness, crime, gravity, anger, intoxication, acts of God.
updated 5:55 AM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
A Sumo wrestler talks on a mobile phone
It is a device that three quarters of the world's inhabitants have access to, but the words to describe it and etiquette of how to use it differ starkly across cultures.
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
While about a quarter of adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness, most of them are not getting adequate treatment, if any.
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Wed September 26, 2012
There are millions of cell phone users in the United States. But one day last week, there was one less. Here's how comedian Dean Obeidallah survived it.
updated 4:20 PM EDT, Wed September 26, 2012
In a world where people are glued to their smartphones every minute of the day, what happened to observing the people and places around us? And what is it doing to our brains?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu September 20, 2012
Physical therapists have a diagnosis for the headaches, neck cricks and achy shoulders affecting smartphone users, gamers and e-mailers. They call it "Text Neck."
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Wed September 19, 2012
Works of art photography aren't just for people with DSLR or film cameras anymore. Smartphones are helping create incredible art.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed September 19, 2012
What if you found yourself stuck alone at a faraway airport -- with no money, credit cards or ID? Never fear, all you need is your phone.
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Tue September 18, 2012
China is on the verge of a smartphone revolution. For migrant populations, such technology has served to liberate workers, restructuring their social identity.
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Fri September 14, 2012
africa mobile phone boys
A little over a decade ago there were about 100,000 phone lines in Nigeria, mostly landlines run by the state-owned telecoms behemoth, NITEL. Today NITEL is dead, and Nigeria has close to 100 million mobile phone lines.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 14, 2012
How does sleeping with your smartphone inches from reach affect your life? You might be surprised.
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Mon September 10, 2012
They've helped ignite the Arab Spring and given people better access to education and health care. How smartphones are changing the world.
updated 4:21 PM EDT, Thu September 20, 2012
From the Samsung Galaxy S III to the next iPhone, here's a look at some of the most popular new handsets.
Many parents complain that cellphones, computers and tablets are dividing families. But some experts disagree.
updated 10:26 AM EDT, Mon September 10, 2012
Ten years ago, I helped work on the next great revolution in digital media. It was going to be wireless. Only most people didn't know it then.