Goodbye, plastic hotel room key. So long, wallet. Farewell, camera.
These days you don’t need any of the above to unlock a hotel room, buy a mojito or snap a vacation photo. All you need is, well — you. At hotels like Alma Barcelona in Spain, a scan of your fingertips opens the door to your room. At Ushuaa Ibiza Beach Hotel in the Mediterranean, you can buy suntan lotion and a sarong with a tap of two fingers. On some Disney Cruise Line ships, facial recognition technology enables onboard photographers to easily group every candid picture they take of you so that you can later browse (read: buy) them.
Like it or not, we are living in an age of human holograms that welcome us to airport security checkpoints and luggage tags capable of texting us when our bags are lost. Technology and travel are becoming ever more fused, even at hotels where for centuries the basic demand has remained unchanged: a safe place to lay one’s head. Today, your head could spin from some of the amenities. At Hotel 1000 in Seattle the rooms have infrared signals that scan and detect body heat to ensure that the housekeeping staff doesn’t knock or barge in, while at Starwood’s Aloft Hotel chain, radio frequency identification allows you to skip the front desk and check in with your smartphone instead.
Arguably, the most compelling and unnerving of these technologies is biometrics — the measurement of physical or behavioral traits to verify identity. Once strictly in the realm of spy novels and science fiction flicks, biometrics are increasingly being used by real-world hotels, resorts and cruise ships. For some travelers, it signals a new era of convenience: no more inadvertently demagnetizing your room key or hiding your wallet in your shoe at the pool. For others, it’s yet another zone that Big Brother is penetrating (not to mention making Mad Men-style rendezvous less clandestine).
Biometric technology has been around for decades. Hotels in chains like the Four Seasons and Hyatt have used them to track their employees’ hours and whereabouts and to increase security on their properties. And a handful of hotels in the vanguard — Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Murano Resort and Kube, both in Paris — introduced biometric room keys years ago. (In Boston, Kimpton’s Nine Zero Hotel has a penthouse suite that opens with a flash of your iris.) Even so, many travelers were unaware that biometrics were being deployed.
Now, after years in the background, biometrics are slowly becoming a part of everyday life, popping up in stores, clubs, gyms. One of the most visible travel examples is evident at airports: Frequent fliers who have undergone background checks as part of U.S. programs like Global Entry and Clear can now be seen sailing through security after pausing at kiosks to verify their biometric information through fingerprint and iris scans. Millions of travelers who want to be fast and unfettered have willingly paid the price, both in terms of money ($100 for five years for Global Entry; $179 a year for Clear) and privacy (the applications require personal information like your passport number, fingerprints and photos).
Indeed, the technology has consumer advocacy groups and data privacy experts worried about civil liberties and the protection of personal data. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, for one, has outlined half a dozen areas of concern about biometrics, including how the data is stored and how vulnerable it is to theft or abuse (available at Epic.org/privacy).