The next chapter in air travel: facial recognition and privacy concerns


In a couple of years, more than half of airports in the world will be using face recognition technologies. While the new technologies come with risks and privacy concerns, industry experts say that the concerns will be addressed.

Right now, there are 93 airports in the United States that use Credential Authentication Technology (CAT-2) units that feature facial recognition technology, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The first CAT-2 was installed at Baltimore Washington International Airport one year ago. The organization anticipates that by next year, the technology will be deployed to about 200 airports – nearly half of the airports in the United States.

Airports of other countries are also implementing the use of Face ID. In China, the first facial recognition software in an airport was used in 2017 and has been widely used by many since.

The first European airport to use facial recognition technology was Frankfurt. At the end of last year, it opened 175 biometric checkpoints.

Airlines are also increasingly using the technology. Last month, Spanish carrier Iberia launched its facial recognition boarding service at six gates at Madrid-Barajas airport and one at Barcelona-El Prat.

SITA, an IT and telecommunication services provider to the air transport industry, estimates that 70% of airlines expect to have biometric ID management in place by 2026, while 90% of airports are investing in major programs or R&D in the area.

One of the benefits of facial recognition technology is that it can save time. In Germany, it has led to a 30% improvement in passenger processing times. Another advantage is improved security – known threats can be identified early in the process.

However, there are concerns about mass surveillance and the possibility of biometric data being mishandled or even stolen.

Urges to support Travel Privacy Protection Act

The organization ‘Fight for the Future’ has been calling for a ban on both government and private use of facial recognition for years. Caitlin Seeley George, the org’s campaigns and managing director, says that the use of such technology in airports poses threats to civil rights and data privacy for all flyers.

“Using this technology in airports is especially fraught as US airports have long been sites of racial profiling, targeted surveillance, and discrimination by government agencies. Because travelers are often in a hurry and don't feel comfortable questioning TSA agents, they are unlikely to opt out of face scans, even if they don't know how this data is being stored and used, who has access to it, and who it could be shared with,” she says.

According to her, one issue with facial recognition in airports is that it’s being deployed by different entities with different policies on how it stores and shares data. While the TSA policy says that it doesn’t store the data of citizens of the USA, they do retain photos of non-US citizens, allowing surveillance of non-citizens, says Seeley George.

There are also risks posed by airlines, which have different policies on the collection and sharing of data than the TSA.

“A private airline could sell your biometric information with data brokers, who can then sell it to any number of companies or governments,” says Seeley George. “And even if these companies don't share your data now they could change their policies at any time. The bottom line is the vast majority of people don't know what will happen to their most sensitive information when their face is scanned at an airport, and that's a major issue.”

According to her, people should know that they do have the right to opt out of facial recognition use by the TSA and airlines. However, she stresses that it shouldn't be the responsibility of the individual who just wants to make their flight on time.

Fight for the Future believes that society needs laws that protect people from surveillance tech and urges people to support the Travel Privacy Protection Act, a bill that would ban the TSA from using facial recognition at airports.

Human rights infringements

One of the biggest issues with the usage of facial recognition technology, in general, is that it is less accurate in identifying dark-skinned people and women. This is partly because the training data used to develop the facial recognition algorithm is mostly composed of images of white-skinned males.

A report published this year by the National Academies stated that facial recognition technology has been implicated in at least six high-profile wrongful arrests of black individuals.

Petra Molnar, Faculty Associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, who has been studying the human rights implications of facial recognition and various border technologies, says that identity mismatch based on an error in facial recognition can have drastic implications.

Molnar highlights specific instances, including one in Canada, where the Federal Court even found that Canada’s border services agency may have used facial recognition to strip two Somali women of their refugee identity.

Another possible rights infringement is mishandling sensitive and biometric data in migration and refugee settings.

“Currently, very little law exists to govern the use of technology at airports and migration. Border and migration spaces are already opaque and discretionary, allowing for technological experimentation to continue,” says P. Molnar, underlining that a new governance system must be created.

Images saved for up to 75 years

A TSA spokesperson said that CAT-2 units do not save or transmit any biometric data externally and are never used for surveillance or law enforcement purposes.

TSA explains that passenger data and images for facial matching are deleted after each transaction, except during specified data collection periods for very limited testing and analysis by DHS Science and Technology to ensure the accuracy and efficacy of the technology.

The spokesperson says that during these specified data collection periods, “the data is physically pulled and carried to DHS Science and Technology. It is raw data about the efficacy of the match and does not include imagery.”

TSA also explains that it doesn’t retain photos of non-US citizens, opposing Seeley George’s claim.

While TSA doesn’t retain images, US Customs and Border Protection agency images of non-US nationals can be stored for a long time.

“CBP enrolls the majority of non-US citizen travelers in the DHS Biometric Identity Management System as a biometric confirmation of entry or departure and retains the photos for up to 75 years,” says the CBP website.

Security can be added by new technologies

Sheldon Jacobson, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, states that facial recognition technology is now experiencing some growing pains, but he thinks that the concerns raised will be addressed.

“I also believe most of these concerns have no foundation and are promulgated by misinformation and fear,” he explains.

When asked if new laws could be passed to ensure safer usage of the technology in airports, the expert says that they would likely only muddy the waters and create unnecessary headwinds.

Mohamed Lazzouni, chief technology officer at Aware, an authentication company that validates and secures identities using adaptive biometrics, thinks that there are mechanisms to bring added security to biometric data while it is being stored.

“One of the most groundbreaking new techniques involves breaking biometric templates down into anonymized bits. This approach to breaking biometric templates up and storing data throughout a network in the form of anonymized bits makes it virtually impossible for a hacker to access complete biometric templates, even in the rare instance that a hacker was able to access the network,“ he says.

Lazzouni believes that biometrics can be a major force for good and that part of the negativity we see is due to the use of subpar technology.

According to him, in the vast majority of cases, the desire for convenience will win out, and most people will choose the biometric method. Soon, we will see facial recognition deployed in other markets, including finance and sports betting.


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