Facial Recognition Tech in Airports: What Travelers Need to Know

While using biometric systems like Clear to board flights without queuing might seem like a win for convenience, the technology raises concerns among privacy advocates. Meanwhile, Clear recently boasted that it has gained 1 million subscribers in the past year alone. What eager travelers may not realize is that they are paying $100 annually to open themselves up to considerable privacy and security risks. In the process, they are shaping opinion by normalizing invasive facial recognition habits that government snoops are smacking their lips about.

Hacker’s Delight

For the time being, consenting to facial recognition in airports is voluntary. However, this is set to change. This year, the Trump administration announced its intention to make facial recognition mandatory for boarding 97 percent of departing international flights by 2022. According to the administration, this will allow Customs and Border Protection to massively improve security and help with tracking those who have outstayed their visas as part of the “biometric exit” system.

The data collected also is worrisome. The U.S. government has proven time and again that it is terrible at securing valuable sensitive data. Think back to 2015, for example, when hackers from the Office of Personnel Management stole 21.5 million federal workers’ private information. And revelations emerged in May that a CBP subcontractor has suffered a hack. According to the reports, hackers successfully stole an undisclosed amount of facial recognition data, license plate images and ID photographs.

This comes as no surprise because anytime sensitive data is held on a central database, it becomes a massive temptation for hackers and state-sponsored attackers. What’s more, that data becomes vulnerable during the transit necessary to perform scans and cross-reference images.

Facial recognition data, a digital representation of someone’s face made up of hundreds of unique markers, is extremely dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. The very data the government claims will protect us, is, in reality, a direct threat to national security.

The Scan-Filled Future

A confusing part of the government’s rhetoric is that passengers coming into and leaving the U.S. already show their passports. CBP has everything it needs to perform checks on visitors, so is there a more sinister, long-term plan in the government’s need to scan faces?

This is certainly the opinion of privacy advocates. Fight for the Future encourages passengers to boycott all airlines that have rolled out facial recognition for boarding. On its website, the advocacy group states: “Just think: If we get used to getting our faces scanned to get on a plane, how long before we get our faces scanned to go to the doctor or buy groceries or for our kid to go to school?”

After all, while passengers may be able to opt out of scans for now, this seems unlikely to be an option in just a few short years. Consumers are being successfully backed into a corner, and it is important that they understand the consequences. Consenting to a face scan to board a plane is agreeing to have one’s biometric data added to a government database. For now, the U.S. government may well stick to scanning citizens boarding international flights. But how long might it be before Uncle Sam starts scanning citizens on domestic flights? Or as they enter sports stadiums or concerts or pass through train stations and subways?

In China, the coupling of facial recognition technology with artificial intelligence already allows the government to track citizens as they move around cities. The Brazilian government and Chinese manufacturers have agreed to roll out similar scanning capabilities around the country. In the U.K., the Metropolitan Police are running a trial to scan people in public places to look for criminals. Amazon Go stores are scanning consumers in stores to let them shop without checking out. These are all signs of our rapidly approaching dystopian future.

Governments are aware that it takes only small steps to desensitize citizens to technologies that can erode their freedom and liberties. As facial recognition becomes ubiquitous, people may be tracked round-the-clock. And, as AI improves, people may wake up to find themselves living in an episode of Black Mirror.

In May, San Francisco banned law enforcement from using facial recognition technology, a small win for privacy. However, if other cities or states are going to follow suit and federal regulations aren’t going to supersede strong state or city level laws—in the U.S., state level laws supersede municipal laws and federal laws supersede state laws due to the preemption doctrine from the supremacy clause of Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution—consumers need to start boycotting airlines that use facial recognition tech and to start encouraging members of Congress to pass laws that ensure this technology does not become a runaway train.

By: ProPrivacy digital privacy expert Ray Walsh

Source: Business Travel News