In Atlanta, Delta has an entire “biometric terminal” that uses your face at check in, bag drop, security and boarding. It says the scans help board international flights nine minutes faster, saving two seconds per passenger.
This has all the makings of a convenience trap. That’s how privacy-invading technology — the stuff of China’s police state — creeps into American life. Mostly in the name of efficiency, airlines and the U.S. government are, at a large scale, scanning the faces of people who aren’t suspected of crimes. It’s America’s biggest step yet to normalize treating our faces as data that can be stored, tracked and, inevitably, stolen.
For now, airport facial recognition is focused on international travelers and is voluntary. Or, rather, U.S. citizens have the right to opt out.
But airports are stressful places where many of us are inclined to trade all sorts of liberties for the promise of safety or expedience. As one passenger boarding at Gate 18 told me, “I don’t care if you need to strip me naked, so long as it gets me onto that plane and makes us safe.”
Here’s the reality: So far, airport facial recognition has very little to do with increasing flight security. Passengers are already screened for that by humans and machines. And the face-scanning systems end up relying on human checks a lot more often than officials like to talk about.
And on Monday, after I published this column online, Department of Homeland Security officials called me to disclose that photos of travelers were recently taken in a data breach, accessed through the network of one of its subcontractors.
Come with me on a trip to the airport. How is this privacy trap being laid? Through technology that’s really driven by immigration policy and business needs.
Smile for the camera
You may already be familiar with facial recognition from unlocking an iPhone with FaceID. What’s happening at the boarding gate is very different.
When you step into JetBlue’s e-gate, you put your feet on blue markers and look for a few seconds toward a box just to your right. A camera inside takes a picture of your face — sometimes two or three, if it didn’t get a good one.
When you unlock an iPhone, your face scans never go to Apple or even leave your phone. But at an e-gate, your face gets captured by the airline and then compared with a face database run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which reports back whether you’re cleared to board.
The system needs photos of travelers to compare against the people at the gate. Where do those come from? From the State Department, which gathers the shots from passports and visa applications. (That’s one reason, for now, airport facial recognition is limited to international travelers.)
“The technology is far superior in terms of identifying mismatches to photographs than just general human beings are,” says Daniel Tanciar, CBP’s deputy executive director of entry and exit transformation.
Yet compared to unlocking an iPhone, I found airport face-scanning doesn’t work quite as well.
JetBlue’s e-gate let me through more than 10 times when I tested with the airline’s assistance. To everyone’s surprise, it also recognized me wearing sunglasses.
But other passengers were not so lucky. On two flights I observed, the e-gate did not work for 15 percent of the passengers.
JetBlue says a non-match can happen for a number of reasons — maybe the passenger doesn’t have a reference photo on file, is looking the wrong way, is too short for the camera or has grown a beard. I didn’t find evidence it failed more often with particular demographics. But academic studies have shown some facial-recognition systems have a harder time reading people of color and women.
The real-world success rates I witnessed are far lower than the technical match rates of 98 percent quoted by the Department of Homeland Security to sell the idea to members of Congress and the public.
Passengers who didn’t get recognized by the computer had to have their passports checked by humans instead. That wasn’t a major disruption on the flights I observed. But what happens to the people with faces computers can’t read when facial recognition is used all over the airport?
The 1 percent problem
Given the concerns it raises, how large, exactly, is the problem facial recognition solves?
Historically, the United States hasn’t required people departing its shores to be checked by customs officers. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress mandated additional biometric checks on exits — but only for foreigners, not Americans. Then in 2017, President Trump issued an executive order expediting the development of a biometric entry-exit program at airports, including facial recognition at the top 20 airports by 2021.
Politicians can debate how important immigration enforcement is to domestic security. Technically speaking, these face checks can catch people who overstay their visas, by determining if the person exiting the country is really the visa holder. And in 2018, only about 1 percent of visa holders overstayed. (Everyone on a flight manifest gets approved for travel long before they have their face scanned.)
CBP’s Tanciar told me he disagrees with my assessment that this use of facial-recognition tech isn’t really about safety. “All of these things we do at the border are for security and safety,” he says.
At best, it seems, gate face checks offer only marginal improvement. Everybody goes through a security checkpoint before getting to the gate.
The airlines have their own business reasons to get behind facial recognition — namely, speed. “We were looking for opportunities to reduce the friction points in the customer’s journey,” JetBlue’s director of customer experience Caryl Spoden tells me.
Efficiency might lead to happier customers — and cost-cutting. When passengers can check luggage and board on their own, there’s less rote work for employees, who can be reassigned to interact with customers elsewhere — or made redundant.
What has civil libertarians worried is that airports are face-scanning everyone, including U.S. citizens. It’s true that airports are already places you have to present identification. But having a computer do that opens the potential for abuse the Constitution is supposed to protect us from. People in the United States can’t be searched unless they’re suspected of crimes. And anonymity is a pillar of free speech.
“If we give in to this, we are allowing the government and the airlines to build up giant face-recognition databases of all of us,” says Jennifer Lynch, the surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Officials have taken steps to limit the intrusion. Customs says it deletes the photos it receives of citizens after 12 hours. JetBlue and Delta say they don’t keep the photos they take of us.
Customs and airline officials also emphasize that participation in facial recognition is voluntary. “This isn’t a surveillance program, in that travelers know that their picture is being taken and it is at places where physical travel documents are checked,” Tanciar says.
Too convenient to avoid
But if it all goes as planned, those special face-scanning zones at airports are about to multiply.
The Transportation Security Administration, which runs the screening lines at airports, has a road map to bring biometrics to checkpoints for domestic travelers, too. As airport traffic grows, face scans “can both enhance security and improve passenger experience,” TSA assistant administrator Austin Gould told Congress at a hearing last week. He didn’t offer evidence of how facial-recognition tech might improve the accuracy of ID checks vs. manual techniques.
And how would TSA be able to bring face checks to all Americans? TSA is still figuring that out, but Gould said passengers with passports might be checked against that Customs database, while other Americans might have a computer read the photo on their physical ID.
Of course, airlines don’t have to wait around on the government to build these systems. With few facial-recognition laws and systems honed by years of airport tests, they could build up their own databases. It’s not hard to imagine one offering faster boarding or other in-flight treats in exchange for a quick snapshot. The paid Clear security service offered at some airports already uses biometric readings of your eyes and fingertips.
Airlines and airports also see business opportunity in our faces. Some in-flight entertainment systems already have cameras in them that could be used to identify passengers. In 2017, when JetBlue launched its first facial-recognition pilot, the company’s chief product officer, Michael Stromer, said in an interview he could imagine someday using facial-recognition tech to personalize staff interactions with customers — and even determine passenger mood.
In China, airports are innovating. At Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport, interactive information kiosks use a face scan to offer personalized flight status updates and help finding the way to your gate.
We still have the power to decide whether our faces are going to be treated like another data point. Without objection, what’s likely to happen is facial identification becomes too convenient to avoid — even if laws or public pressure continue to make it voluntary.
Quizzing TSA during last week’s hearing, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) said, "You’re saying voluntarily. But I can imagine like you’ve done with Pre Check. You can either surrender your right to anonymity and wait in the long line, or you can give up your Fourth Amendment rights and go in the quick line.”
Are you going to want to opt out at check in? At baggage drop? At security checkpoints? At the gate? And when you want to order an in-flight snack?
And when that day comes, what will we have given up just to move a little faster through the airport?
James Pace-Cornsilk contributed to this report.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: