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The Rise of Facial Recognition Technology in Airports

By Kimiya Gilani

Facial recognition technology is rising in many facets of everyday life. Whether it is being used to unlock phones, suggest tags on social media, or to scan crowds, facial recognition is on the rise. One of the latest ways this technology is being used is to verify identity at the airport. In March 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13780, otherwise known as the “travel ban”, which contained a provision implementing the use of facial recognition technology to verify the identities of all travelers crossing the United States’ borders. It is being used specifically at boarding gates for international flights in certain big airports in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. For the technology to work, an individual simply has to stare at a camera, without having to show any boarding pass or identification. The camera recognizes the individual by comparing his or her photo taken at the gate with photos of those listed on the flight manifest and confirms the individual’s identity. It takes about two seconds, and then the individual is ready to board your flight. The airline industry is pushing this technology to be used in order to ease overcrowding at airports and as a more accurate means of passenger identification.

With the increased use of facial recognition technology in airports, there is an increased risk of privacy violations. Facial recognition technology is unregulated and yet is being implemented at airports around the United States. The increased use of this technology can lead to traveler’s data being at risk to cyberattack. This already happened in June 2019, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced photos of travelers, as well as license plates, were compromised by a malicious cyberattack on CBP.

Though airport travelers have the option to opt out of the facial recognition program, their photos are still included in the used flight manifest gallery. Also, it may not be clear to many travelers that the opt-out option is available. The Electronic and Privacy Information Center (EPIC) questions the opt-out option and filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit trying to determine whether the U.S. government is allowing travelers to opt out of facial recognition when boarding flights. According to EPIC’s research, CBP has increasingly made difficult opting-out of the facial recognition program. As this technology continues to be implemented, it is likely that more lawsuits will arise, questioning the methods used and the legality of the privacy invasions this technology creates.

Allowing this facial recognition technology to be implemented widespread would allow the government to build giant facial-recognition databases of passengers and would have serious privacy implications. Though the Trump administration stands by its assertion that facial recognition in airports is not a surveillance program, without privacy safeguards and meaningful opt-out procedures, passengers are at risk of their privacy being invaded and practically non-existent.


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