Last week, a Twitter conversation between an airline passenger and JetBlue went viral after she asked about the company’s creepy facial recognition cameras. Mostly, the passenger seemed shocked to learn airlines were scanning customers’ faces at all.
“Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera,” wrote writer MacKenzie Fegan. “Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?”
The information is provided by the United States Department of Homeland Security from existing holdings.
— JetBlue (@JetBlue) April 17, 2019
Fegan had a lot of questions about the program, and JetBlue’s official Twitter account didn’t offer many answers. As alarming as airport face scanners may be, however, their rollout across the U.S. has hardly been secret. And there’s a lot we can tell you about them that airlines’ customer service agents never will.
Facial scanners are already at more than a dozen U.S. airports
The use of facial recognition in American airports has been spearheaded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — part of the Department of Homeland Security — which has been testing these systems as part of its “Biometric Exit” program since 2015. The initiative scans the faces of passengers taking international flights out of the U.S. and matches them to identity photos the CBP has on file.
Earlier this month, Homeland Security said it plans to scan the faces of “over 97 per cent” of departing international passengers by 2023. According to Buzzfeed, 17 U.S. airports are currently part of the program.
“Since its inception, over two million passengers on over 15,000 flights have used the technology on exit,” the agency boasted earlier this month. By the end of 2021, CBP has been given the goal of scanning the faces of passengers on 16,300 flights per week.
Some major airlines are enthusiastic partners
Both airports and airlines have been all too happy to participate in the scheme. JetBlue, Delta, Lufthansa, British Airways and, most recently, American Airlines have all tested CBP face scanners on their customers.
These airlines emphasise that passengers can choose to opt out, but as Fegan’s case illustrates, this option isn’t always clear to customers. (Delta has said less than two per cent of fliers at one terminal opted out of face recognition.)
JetBlue and Delta have even gone one step further, giving passengers more opportunities to have their faces scanned. In November, Delta debuted what it called America’s “first biometric terminal” in Atlanta, celebrating an (optional!) “end-to-end Delta Biometrics experience” that would use facial recognition for check-in, bag check, TSA identification, and boarding.
And in December, JetBlue told Travel Weekly it planned to install two “self bag drop” machines in New York that would scan passengers’ faces and check them against CBP data.
We don’t know how facial data collected by airlines is protected
While CBP has said it will only keep facial exit scans for a maximum of 14 days, the rules for partner airlines are vaguer.
Speaking to the New York Times last summer, a CBP official said that while he doubted airlines would want to keep fliers’ biometric data, it “would really be up to them.”
More recently, CBP claimed in December that it has “developed business requirements which do not allow approved partners to retain the photos they collect.”
If so, these requirements do not appear to have been made public, and it’s unclear when they were instituted. For their part, JetBlue, Delta, and American Airlines have said that they don’t retain facial scans and claim they are sent directly to CBP for matching.
You can learn more about the process here: https://t.co/wDZYiNNhoY.
— JetBlue (@JetBlue) April 17, 2019
In a 2017 report, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology noted that by partnering with private companies, Homeland Security makes it easier for these companies to track travellers for their own business interests.
“[D]espite the risk that airlines will use biometric exit data and technology for their own tracking purposes, [the agency] has not published any guidelines for or agreements with its private partners,” wrote the authors.
It’s not clear why Homeland Security even needs to scan faces
As its name suggests, the Biometric Exit program scans people leaving the country. How this makes us any safer is difficult to explain. The government seems to believe that knowing—100 per cent, for sure—when people legally admitted to the U.S. have left is important enough to scan everyone’s face.
In a recent report, Homeland Security bragged that the program has biometrically confirmed “over 7,000” cases of people leaving the country after their visas expired—again, leaving. Out of 2 million passengers, that’s a hit rate of about 0.0035 per cent.
Facial recognition tech has repeatedly shown racial and gender bias
to mugshot photos.
When it comes to CBP’s face-scanning program, we don’t even know how biased it may or may not be. As recently as 2017, a CBP official said the agency was still studying whether its facial scans had a disparate impact on certain groups “because we only have a small sample size so far.”
Facial recognition isn’t just coming to airports
While airports might be the place where this creepy tech is being introduced the most rapidly, all kinds of industries are excited about the possibilities of facial recognition. Companies in the U.S. have tested out face-scanning kiosks designed to do everything from track fast food customers to secretly identify Taylor Swift stalkers.
Wow! China Airport face recognition systems to help you check your flight status and find the way to your gate. Note I did not input anything, it accurately identified my full flight information from my face! pic.twitter.com/5ASdrwA7wj
— Matthew Brennan (@mbrennanchina) March 24, 2019
Just last month, Twitter users were disturbed by a facial recognition kiosk in a Chinese airport that appeared to be passively scanning passersby.
The New York Times recently reported that police in that country are now specifically requesting systems that can identify faces belonging to members of the Uighur ethnic minority.
If we don’t demand tighter rules on face scanning, this type of surveillance won’t be surprising anymore: It will just be normal.
We have reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment and will update this story when they reply.