Facial recognition technology, whether we like it or not (and I certainly don’t), is here to stay. Articles abound on the subject. It’s use, or abuse, in overtly authoritarian places like China is well known. But chances are pretty good, and getting better, that the technology has been used on you, probably without your knowledge. A recent story in CNN relates a strange experience had by an American traveler named MacKenzie Fegan.
Fegan was at the airport to catch a flight to Mexico. She was flying JetBlue, a popular low-cost airline. As she was passing through a security check, she expected to be asked to show her passport and boarding pass. She didn’t have to show either.
“There were plastic barricades across the front of each lane, I look to my right, and the gate opens,” she told CNN. “I was like, ‘What, just happened?’ There was no boarding pass scan, nothing like that.”
What happened was the airline scanned her face.
Disturbed, Fegan directed a tweet to JetBlue:
“I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight. Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge. Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?”
She only had to wait a few minutes for a response. The answer was yes, they were using facial recognition instead of scanning boarding passes, and no, she did not consent to it. But, JetBlue, added:
“You’re able to opt out of this procedure, MacKenzie. Sorry if this made you feel uncomfortable”
That will sound familiar to anyone who pays attention to the terms and conditions attached to smartphone apps, many of which automatically opt you into invasive features (recording audio and suchlike) that you must manually opt out of, after jumping through hoops to figure out how.
Fegan perceived ominous signs in her JetBlue experience.
“We are increasingly moving towards this type of automation—personal data and biometric data being available to companies and to corporations,” she said. “I had a lot of questions, I think everybody should have a lot of questions.”
As CNN reports, facial recognition has been used at airports for years. Raoul Cooper, senior digital design manager at British Airways, detailed how the process works.
“[At the first security check] we grab your face, and we associate it to your boarding pass,” he explained. “[The camera] is looking at the face and taking a number of measurements and building out what we call a biometric template. And that is kind of like the algorithmic side or the mathematical representation of your face, and that allows us to run algorithms on it.”
Passengers’ faces are “grabbed” again as they board their flights, and the system checks to make sure that the image matches with the one recorded earlier.
Use of biometric technology at American airports has been rapidly expanding in the years since 9/11. Today, any foreigner coming to the US has their photo and fingerprints taken after landing.
Proponents of biometric and facial recognition technology point to its efficiency and accuracy—and its ability to enhance security. But engaged citizens see something disconcerting between the lines. At what point do we decide that the gain in security (if that is in fact a benefit) isn’t worth the corresponding loss of privacy?