Ready to fly with your face?

September 26, 2019

 

What have Atlanta, Beijing, Bristol, Chengdu, Dubai, Dublin, Helsinki, Las Vegas, London, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Washington in common ? All these airports are implementing or, at least experimenting, biometric check in. The goal is to use biometrics, generally face recognition, to automate the journey through all steps before boarding an aircraft. For instance, biometrics can be used to replace the boarding pass. Government authorities can use biometrics to check when people enter or leave the country. And, in the US, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), in charge of airport security, wants to compare your face against your photo identification throughout the airport.

 

Airports, airlines and vendors promote these systems saying they bring additional convenience to passengers: they no longer have to deal with official IDs and go through long lines several times for human controls. Also, as implemented in Beijing, passengers can receive personalized information about their flight on screens equipped with cameras that recognize them.

 

In Dallas, American Airlines only uses facial recognition to expedite the control of passengers against their passport photo and claim they are not storing any of the photos.

 

London’s Gatwick airport has set up a joint venture with EasyJet to test the technology. Under this trial, passengers will be required to present their passport at the gate for the system to be able to match the photo inside to their actual face.

 

In Atlanta, USA, the promise of the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and Delta Air Lines is the “curb-to-gate biometric terminal” or, in other terms, a fully biometric experience throughout the passenger journey in the terminal. Here, face recognition is not only used extensively through the terminal but also linked with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) photographic database. This way the crosscheck between the image of a passenger and official photo of each individual in the CBP files can be performed automatically.

 

While airport authorities claim that facial recognition is more accurate and more secure than human control, the enthusiasm for this technology is not shared by all: privacy groups say they're worried facial recognition databases are subject to limited accountability and vulnerable to government abuse or lack of oversight. Passengers are questioning the CBP: how did you get my data? How is it protected? How do I opt-out? … More specifically, the EFF, Electronic Frontier Foundation, recommends its members to refuse to have their face scanned at airports.

 

Moreover, no guarantee is given about the storage of biometric information or its security: according to the EFF, the CBP will store facial recognition data for two weeks for US citizens and lawful permanent residents, and for 75+ years for non-US persons. These data can be used later by other US government agencies, including the FBI and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) for immigration, law enforcement, and intelligence checks. Also, when all kinds of large databases have already been hacked, citizens are legitimately asking about the cybersecurity protections implemented to protect such sensitive personal data.

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