Airports Are Normalizing Facial Recognition in the United States

The quest for total security has transformed airports into a playground for surveillance tech

If you want to see what the future of facial recognition looks like, go to your local airport.

Instead of asking to see your boarding pass when stepping onto an international flight, airline attendants ask you to direct your face toward a camera. After a moment, your name appears on a screen with a little green check mark. Cameras scan your face when you approach the border agent when entering or leaving the country. At airports, more than any other public spaces today, facial recognition technology has become pervasive and inescapable.

Airports have a long track record as security tech testing grounds.

Facial recognition systems in airports are used to verify the identities of travelers. The Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) run captured images against a database containing some travelers’ faces to verify citizens and visa holders entering and exiting the country. Private companies use facial recognition in airports too: American AirlinesDeltaUnited, and JetBlue are all either testing or expanding their use of the technology this year to start to replace boarding passes. These airlines account for more than half of all U.S. air travel, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

As facial recognition becomes the gold standard for security at airports, the technology will spread to baseball stadiums, convenience stores, schools, and workplaces.

Airports have a long track record as security tech testing grounds. Metal detectors and X-ray machines were introduced in airports in the 1970s after a spate of plane hijackings; after 9/11, that level of security trickled down to venues, government offices, and even schools, where students pass through metal detectors and have their backpacks scanned with X-ray machines. In 2015, Major League Baseball made metal detectors mandatory in all of their stadiums.

As we acclimate to the procedures of facial recognition, the technology will become mundane. The same way that travelers automatically know to lift their arms and spread their feet for airport security’s full-body scanners today, lifting your chin so the camera can take a better picture of your face at a CBP checkpoint or facial recognition check-in will become rote.

This isn’t just conditioning to security practices, but also conditioning to surveillance. For facial recognition to be effective in an airport setting, CBP or any airline needs a record of what you look like. Many airlines are now partnering with the CBP to run facial recognition on passengers; they are able to link their boarding systems with the U.S. State Department’s database of passport and visa photos. For now, the technology is limited to international flyers, but we might soon see it rolled out for domestic flights too.

While the act of scanning someone’s face is less physically invasive than a metal detector or pat down, it marks a new era of privacy invasion. Rather than probing for dangerous physical possessions, this security tactic seeks a dangerous history, determining whether your actions have deemed you as worthy to enter. It marks a turning point in security’s transition from auditing what you’re carrying to auditing who you are.

The shift to facial recognition is a matter of efficiency, the CBP agency says, one that will shorten lines and make flying a better experience. But what’s left unsaid is that this specific efficiency exacts an invisible toll from everyone who takes part in the system.

There is no law in the United States that prohibits gathering biometrics information from people, except in the state of Illinois.

The CBP uses facial recognition in addition to manual passport checks in more than 20 locations. Whether you’re arriving or exiting the country, CBP can record images of your face and compare it to your passport or visa picture, or other images it takes down the line. CBP still says it has privacy protection measures in place. The agency will delete images of U.S. citizens’ faces up to 12 hours after they pass through security, though non-citizens run the risk of having their images kept by the agency for an undetermined amount of time. That’s not any kind of law, just a CBP policy, meaning that when this technology is replicated elsewhere, there’s the possibility of that face data being retained, reused, or sold.

The fact is, there is no law in the United States that prohibits gathering biometrics information from people, except in the state of Illinois. That means companies can collect this information and identify people even without their consent, in stores, public places, or sporting arenas. The information can be bought, sold, attached to other information that companies like Google or Facebook collect, and sorted into a digital dossier that follows you wherever you go. It’s not science fiction, because it’s already here.

Once a person’s history, their report cards and criminal histories and overdue rent bills and late electric payments and social media posts become a part of whether they can move freely, it’s a true loss for privacy. So next time you’re asked to look at a camera to board a flight, realize that in 2020 and beyond, this kind of surveillance might become a much more regular part of your life.

All Rights Reserved for Dave Gershgorn

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