Adam Tsao, co-founder of Airside: “Technology should enhance your humanity, not exploit it”

Animated Airside logo (A does a reverse clock motion before panning out to the while Airside text/logo)

Founded in 2009, Airside has transformed the way businesses and individuals verify, share, and manage personal information through digital ID. The company began with four people working in a basement in Washington, D.C. and has grown into three offices across nine time zones to support over 10 million users. Airside is best known for the award-winning Mobile Passport App, which helped millions of travelers speed through customs and passport control. Over the last 20 years, Adam Tsao, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Airside, has played an integral role in bringing digital ID to market and then scaling across verticals.

On Wednesday, January 12, 2022, Adam spent time with Master of Engineering students in the E270: Marketing & Product Management boot camp course to share insights about privacy in the digital age and his role as a technologist, founder, and innovator. This guest lecture provided insights into Airside’s core principle “Privacy First. Human Always.” and the product management process in action.

Phone rendering of the Airside Digital Identity App
Visit the Airside Digital Identity App

What exactly is a digital ID?

“When you think about your identity, it is such a core piece of your humanity and individuality. But when you look at your digital identity, everyone else, other than you, has control over it, including: Google, Facebook, the credit bureaus, and the federal government,” says Adam. In response to this, Airside believes in “privacy for everyone, everywhere in an information sharing world.” Their solution is the Airside Digital Identity App, which uses patented Airside technology to empower people to control their verified personal information with transparent consent protocols. This, in turn, enhances business products, decreases costs, reduces the burden of complying with privacy regulations, and opens a new world of digitally safe and secure opportunities and experiences.

App demonstration: The Airside Digital Identity App makes it easy to share everything from your passport, driver’s license, and COVID vaccination information to safely get you out and about.

Airside’s Mobile Passport App was authorized by US Customs and Border Protection (US CBP) in 2014 to develop and deploy digital border management. Since then, it has expanded to 29 major airports and four cruise ports. The results? Trust, volume, efficiency, and enhanced security. The app, fortified with three layers of encryption, is five times faster than traditional processes. US CBP has processed over 18 million trips with as many as 40,000 passengers per day using it to speed through their journeys like “VIPs.”

Digital ID will be everywhere

“Over the last five years, digital identity has been growing in importance. Examples include: a digital version of our driver’s license, your data on Facebook, your credit score. All of your digital identity is currently held by someone else,” Adam explains. “It’s probable that ‘someone else’ has lost it at this point. There’s less and less certainty for the big enterprises to trust that you are who you say you are. And what does that mean for access to those services?” This issue is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where services have moved to all remote and all online. Digital services overall have accelerated and risen in importance. This combination allows for fraud to thrive. “Fraud has increased to 200–500% in every single vertical that we have looked at,” says Adam. This poses a great threat for both businesses and individuals.

By 2025, Airside believes 6 billion consumers will be using digital ID technology. The privacy of such sensitive information, particularly biometrics, is going to make this market a huge battleground. You may have seen some other big tech companies that have unveiled a number of new privacy features that underscore that trend. Airside’s product not only verifies the individual’s dynamic digital identity, but it’s built in such a way that it gives the power to the individual. This is what sets Airside apart. “You can share the information you want, for the purpose you want, to the relying party you want, for the time you want,” affirms Adam. “Privacy is at the center of our product strategy and we believe that we are the only company that can credibly deliver interoperability with compelling privacy protections.”

Innovation and product management at Airside

“The decisions we made as a company about data privacy, individualism, and ethics drive down to our base products,” explains Adam. Every two weeks, Airside employees are invited by Chief Product Officer, Chris Briggs, to propose a product innovation by participating in the product prioritization process. They are encouraged to present ideas that range from a process improvement to completely new applications of the product.

Chris orchestrates the product prioritization process at Airside, unfolding in four stages:

  1. Discovery | This is the initial phase in which ideas are logged for initial review. The validating idea fit will be applicable to a simple framework to determine priority and ownership. The initiative will include a high-level overview, with strategy and product fit. The description includes a target market definition focused on buyers, need, benefit, messaging, as well as the potential financial position. This stage engages strategy, business development, and product teams.
  2. Inception | This is the second phase during which ideas are reviewed and researched in detail, including the definition of the target market and specific solution. The description may include the following details: total addressable market, target market definition, customer feedback, success criteria and minimum viable product (MVP) statement, business case, and build/buy/partner decision. This stage engages product and architecture and go-to-market teams.
  3. Elaboration | This is the third phase during which a solution is designed, and additional analysis is completed in terms of a high-level business case with costs and benefits. The description may include the following details: documented business requirements, design, architecture, business case, financial details, customer lifetime value (CLV), return on investment (ROI), quantitative measures, risks, dependencies, and contingencies. This stage engages the product, architecture, engineering, SecOps, and go-to-market teams.
  4. Delivery | This is the fourth phase, which focuses on all market ready launch activities, ranging from development to operations to marketing. This stage includes documented business requirements, design, architecture, success criteria, and business case. It engages architecture, engineering, SecOps, and go-to-market teams.

Adam highlights the importance of the product manager role in this risk-laden process: “The product manager must understand both our capabilities and the ecosystem that they’re going to launch the product in.” He continues: “If you like the idea of taking a kernel of an idea and bringing it to market with something that provides value to people, product is the place for you to be!”

Airside is continuing to evolve their product to scale across verticals and promote the individual’s agency in digital identification. They are currently pursuing the application of this product in the following markets: gig economy, residential real estate, P2P, seamless travel, and eCommerce.

Left: Photo of Adam; Right: Photo of Jennifer

Jennifer Yang, the instructor for the course, was excited to bring an expert/professional into the classroom in this relevant topic of data privacy. Adam also invited the students to pitch their ideas about applying the solution to other verticals. When asked about what she hoped the students would take away from the guest lecture, Jennifer shared, “Adam emphasized the value of this company’s contributions to society. My hope is that the students also think about their impact and broader contributions.”

Learn more about Airside to follow the evolution of the digital ID, and connect with Adam Tsao.

Written by Ashley Villanueva.

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