Airlines and U.S. authorities are increasingly using facial-recognition technology, including at check-in, baggage drop, security and boarding. So far, airports aren’t using our faces for mass surveillance — and U.S. citizens have the right to opt out.
But you can’t avoid it if you don’t know it is happening. Passengers can’t count on getting advance notice, and some have been surprised to discover the tech at the airport. As of 2019, facial recognition is mostly being used to verify passenger identity for Customs and Border Protection on international flights — but the Transportation Security Administration and airlines have plans to expand it to domestic travel, too.
To start with, be cognizant anytime you’re asked to look into a camera or to remove sunglasses or a hat, which interfere with the ability to scan your face. “It might sound trite, but right now, the key to opting out of face recognition is to be vigilant,” warns the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Different airlines and even different parts of the airport may have different ways to notify passengers when the tech is being used. JetBlue, for example, has a sign in English on the counter at its “e-gate” boarding area and also makes announcements about its program.
Delta, which also scans faces at check-in, security checks and baggage drop, says it notifies passengers they can opt out in e-receipt and check-in reminder emails, via on-screen notifications at self-service kiosks, through announcements, and on signs at bag drop counters and security checkpoints. Delta says that at Atlanta’s Terminal F, its “biometric terminal,” fewer than 2 percent of passengers opt out.
If you do opt out, your travel documents will be manually inspected — and you might be asked to stand in a separate, possibly slower, line.
A group of digital rights advocates, including Fight for the Future, last week launched the website AirlinePrivacy.com to keep a running list of airlines that are using the tech. “They are making it seem like invasive, faulty and biased surveillance is helpful and convenient,” says Fight for the Future organizer Jelani Drew. “These agencies claim that the systems are voluntary, but that doesn’t mean that U.S. citizens are giving explicit consent to be enrolled or honest information about the full implications of these tech programs.”
If you get any pushback about opting out, know that DHS officials have repeatedly told Congress that face scans are optional for citizens — at least for now.
- Says the CBP website: “At this time, CBP does not require U.S. Citizens or exempt aliens to have their pictures taken when entering or exiting the country. These travelers who request not to participate in this facial comparison process may notify a CBP Officer or an airline or airport representative in order to seek an alternative means of verifying their identities and documents.”
- Says the TSA website: “Participation in the testing of biometric technology is voluntary. Passengers may notify a TSA officer if they do not wish to participate and will go through the standard ID verification process.”
What about noncitizens? While some airlines now give people with foreign passports the ability to join opt-out lines, there may come a day when that goes away. U.S. law mandates additional biometric checks on visa holders exiting the airport — and holding on to that data for 75 years.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: