Federal Push for Facial Recognition Renews Concerns

New camera technology speeds airport check-in, but civil liberties questions remain

By Rick Wills

Published December 16, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


A new proposal by the federal government has added another front to the ongoing debate about facial recognition technology, and balancing its convenience and security with questions about privacy and civil rights.

Federal officials are considering requiring that all travelers — including American citizens — be photographed as they enter or leave the U.S. as part of an identification system using the technology.

Photos of U.S. citizens scanned by the technology are deleted within 12 hours, according to federal officials. But the technology has its opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“The concern is that your face will be used to track and monitor you everywhere you go,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project told USA TODAY.

At airports using the technology, cameras take travelers’ photos and match them with a photo on a passport or other travel documents approved by the Department of Homeland Security.

The technology already has been adopted by four major airlines in the United States at 26 airports for passengers departing on international flights, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which supervises use of facial recognition in collaboration with airlines.

Another 12 airports have installed facial recognition technology for passengers arriving to the United States. They include large hub airports in Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis and Fort Lauderdale.

Mandated scanning?

U.S. citizens can opt out and check in with a customs agent – at least for now.

“Travelers, including U.S. citizens, should not have to submit to invasive biometric scans simply as a condition of exercising their constitutional right to travel,” Stanley said in a statement.

The technology has also drawn bipartisan skepticism in Congress.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Security Subcommittee, and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee have both raised concerns about the technology and its accuracy.

Los Angeles International Airport launched a pilot program for biometric boarding in Dec. 2018. (Stock image)

Markey says he will introduce legislation to block the plan and prohibit U.S. citizens from being forced to provide facial-recognition information. A recent data breach at U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows that Homeland Security can’t be trusted with the information, he said.

In the U.S. House, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, last summer held the first series of congressional hearings on facial recognition technology

He and then-Chairman, the late Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said they would pursue legislation that would ban the use of the technology by government agencies.

The current landscape

Delta Air Lines has probably done more with facial recognition technology than any other carrier.

The airline introduced the technology a year ago when it launched a fully biometric terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where international Delta passengers have access to the airline’s facial recognition technology from curb to gate.

Passengers flying out of the country on Delta or any of its international partners have access to the technology at any of its hubs, which include Detroit, Minneapolis-St Paul, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Other developments include:

  • United Airlines is testing facial recognition during boarding at some gates for international travel in Houston, Washington Dulles and San Francisco.
  • American Airlines has a pilot program at Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal 4, where passengers’ faces will be scanned to verify identities in lieu of scanning boarding passes.
  • JetBlue Airways offers self-boarding on international flights leaving from New York’s JFK International Airport, Boston’s Logan International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Facial recognition speeds up operations but isn’t perfect, said Lance Bagnoff, manager of security operations at the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which manages Pittsburgh International Airport.

“It still has challenges, like distinguishing between identical twins,” he said.

The technology has yet to arrive at PIT and probably won’t be launched until 2023, when construction of a new billion-dollar terminal is completed.

“It would coincide with the opening of the new terminal. You don’t want to install something like this twice,” said Bagnoff.

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