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Airports want to scan your face to make travelling easier. Privacy experts caution it’s not ready for takeoff

The Current18:59The appeal of — and alarm created by — biometrics use at airports

Your journey through the airport might one day look quite different as some airports and airlines roll out facial recognition technology across several systems, including check-in, and security and immigration clearances.

Aviation management expert John Gradek says the tech will “be as commonplace as the escalator or the moving sidewalks.”

While airlines and airports say facial recognition can make air travel — an often tedious experience — more efficient and seamless, privacy advocates argue the use of biometric data is fraught and open to abuse.

But Gradek says society is on the “bleeding edge of facial recognition” and the move to biometric-based identification is already underway at some airports. 

Germany’s Frankfurt airport is installing systems it says will speed up the check-in process by scanning a traveller’s face. Emirates Airlines and airports in China have introduced similar systems to guide passengers through a terminal. 

Meanwhile, Air Canada launched a pilot program in February 2023 that allows select passengers flying out of Vancouver International Airport to board a flight without showing ID, and access lounges at Toronto Pearson International Airport, using facial recognition.

“Facial recognition is an accepted method of security, and it’s just migrating to the airport,” said Gradek.

Reducing congestion, speeding up travel

Gradek explains that facial recognition at airports works by comparing images taken of you to your travel records, like a passport and customs declarations.

“As you go through an airport, they check your facial recognition data, match it against what’s on record, and if you are a good match to the systems that are currently in place, you get that green light,” he said.

Biometric scanning can be used at various points in the travel process. It may help airlines better understand where a passenger is currently located within the airport.

“If you’re late to board your flight … they can basically target you very quickly with messaging, saying, ‘Please get your butt over here and get on the plane because you’re late,'” said Gradek.

A screen with two cameras displays the image of a woman standing in front of it.
A person poses for a photo while demonstrating the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s new facial recognition technology at a security checkpoint in a Baltimore airport. (Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press)

Reducing queuing — whether that’s waiting to drop off bags, be screened at security or actually enter an aircraft — is also a potential benefit. Scanning systems could reduce some steps that require human intervention, particularly at gates where staff are required to check identification and boarding passes, he says.

“That’s all done by people today with some technology. The objective is to basically reduce the number of people at the airport,” Gradek said, noting it could help airlines lower costs.

The systems can take different forms. In 2018, the Dubai International Airport introduced what it called a “smart tunnel” to scan passenger biometrics and automatically check passports. The system took passengers approximately 15 seconds to complete. 

According to Emirates Airlines, passengers can experience a “contactless journey” at Dubai International by registering a photo at check-in, which provides access to “Biometric Smart Zones” in parts of the airport. 

Similar smart gate systems compare a passenger’s photo to biometric information stored on ePassports.

The systems are not flawless, however. Last May, a technical problem shut electronic border gates across the U.K., requiring passports to be manually checked, on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Privacy experts warn of consequences

Privacy advocates worry too little is known about the potential harms of facial recognition, particularly as it becomes more common, including at airports.

“Most normal people don’t really know how it works or what the risks are, what the benefits are,” said Brenda McPhail, director of executive education for the Public Policy Digital Society program at McMaster University.

“It runs covertly behind the scenes often, and it has sort of notable flaws in relation to accuracy.”

Those flaws, she notes, include biases that often impact people of colour, women, 2SLGBTQ people and individuals with physical disabilities.

McPhail argues that much like fingerprints, our faces are “irrevocably attached to you forever and ever,” and should be protected.

“Would you consent to run your finger along a railing as you walked so that your fingerprint could allow yourself to be tracked at every location as you walk through a terminal?” she asked.

Close up photo of a smart airport gate. A screen displays a green arrow, with the words "Board Now". The clear plastic gates read "LAX"
Boarding gates that scan faces can allow passengers to check in for flights, clear security checkpoints and board planes using only biometric data. (Ashley Landis/The Associated Press)

Air Canada says its Digital Identification pilot project is voluntary, and that customers can continue to board flights and access lounges using a boarding pass and standard ID. 

According to Air Canada’s website, face measurements used by the system remain on a traveller’s personal device. When a traveller checks in for a flight using the Air Canada app, the information is shared with the airline and is deleted “36 hours after your flight departs.”

Transparency around how that data is used during that 36-hour period is needed, says McPhail. And while facial recognition may be voluntary, she worries about the impression refusing it can leave.

“That might make you suspect, that might subject you to additional screening, make somebody wonder why you don’t want to participate in that program,” she said.

In a statement to CBC Radio, Air Canada said more than 50,000 passengers have signed up for the Digital Identification program. The airline carried more than 46 million passengers in 2023.

More privacy legislation needed: advocate

Under Bill C-27, the Liberal government has proposed new legislation that would set rules on how personal information can be used. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada told CBC in a statement that the legislation will benefit consumers and allow companies to “innovate, compete and thrive.”

“This proposed legislation will ensure that Canadians have first class privacy and data protection and that companies that break the rules face severe consequences,” the statement read.

McPhail is calling on the government to define biometric information as sensitive, and to remove exemptions for “legitimate business purposes” in the bill that allow companies to use certain information without notifying customers in specific circumstances.

“That’s creating a huge gap in the new privacy law. That’s going to be really problematic for something like facial recognition that is so easy to do covertly,” she said.

As a privacy advocate — and traveller — McPhail is interested in testing out airport facial recognition systems.

“It’s better to understand what you want to be critical of,” she said. 

“But would I be happy if it were mandatory, if I didn’t have that choice? Absolutely not. I’d be very worried.”

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