Are airport biometrics inevitable?

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Biometric facial recognition technology is already being used at various points in the passenger journey at airports throughout the world. Airlines, airports and customs agencies—particularly US Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—like both the accuracy of the identification technique and its ability to speed passenger processing through crowded airports.

Trials, such as those conducted by JetBlue Airways and British Airways, have been touted as tremendous successes. And China is moving fast to implement facial biometrics at its airports as air passenger traffic soars in the world’s most populous country.

But there are signs of pushback against the ongoing rollout of facial recognition technologies at the world’s airports. When CBP and Delta Air Lines tried to implement facial recognition at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), the airport’s operator, the Port of Seattle, forced a slowdown of the rollout.

Delta passengers departing SEA on international flights were expected to be able to board aircraft via facial recognition starting at the end of 2019. But the Port of Seattle’s commissioners adopted a resolution stating that “implementation of public-facing facial recognition technology” needs to be “clearly justified, equitable and transparent.” A working group will develop policies by March 31 “that can be clearly enforced and measured,” the port said in a statement, adding, “Commissioners also clarified that no biometric technology shall be implemented at port facilities until commissioners formally consider working group recommendations and develop policy by June 30, 2020.”

Transparent & Ethical

Port of Seattle Commission president Stephanie Bowman explained the reason for the pushback.

“We know of more than 20 other airports that have implemented facial recognition technology, but no other port has undergone a public process to ensure that implementation would protect passenger rights, and be limited, transparent and ethical,” she said. “We feel that our community expects more than to have this kind of technology rolled out without any public discussion or input. When this Commission adopts policies in 2020, we will have the opportunity to create the nation’s best practices for public-facing biometrics.”

The port noted that it was trying to get “ahead of a national rise in public-facing facial recognition technology deployment over the next few years by its private sector and federal partners,” adding, “Currently, CBP uses facial recognition technology for international arrivals processing at 11 US airports and six cruise terminals, while airports and airlines have implemented facial recognition for international departures at 20 airports.”

US airports where facial recognition technology is used include Atlanta, Washington Dulles, Fort Lauderdale (Florida), Houston Intercontinental, New York JFK, Las Vegas McCarran, Los Angeles LAX, Miami, Orlando, San Diego, San Jose (California) and Portland (Oregon).

China Embraces Biometrics

Proponents of facial recognition technology at airports say passengers have overwhelmingly voiced support for such a use of biometrics.

“We do surveys and 68% percent of passengers were willing to share their biometric details if it made their life easier,” SITA Asia-Pacific president Sumesh Patel told ATW. “If they are provided with clarity and assured the data will be deleted as soon as the flight takes off, they are generally comfortable with the technology.”

SITA has been working with the Chinese government to introduce biometric identification at airports throughout the country. According to SITA, 27% of Chinese airports have self-boarding gates using biometrics and this figure is expected to reach 66% within three years.

Patel said Chinese airports are looking to adopt a system in which passengers step in front of a kiosk to have their passport scanned and a photo taken at the first touchpoint when they arrive in the airport, and then all subsequent touch points would be passed through using facial recognition. The passenger’s face, in effect, would become his or her passport.

“More than half of the airports [in China] have plans for secure single biometric tokens for all touch points by 2022,” according to SITA.

Patel said passengers could opt out of biometric facial recognition, but conceded that doing so would likely lead to a much longer processing time through the airport, perhaps as long as three hours.

He noted that airlines, airports and passengers will be forced to widely adopt biometric identification or risk stifling air traffic growth.

“Over the next 20 years, the passenger numbers are going to double, but airports are only going to grow by about 5% to 6%, so there is a need to rely on technology to enable growth,” he said, adding that dramatically speeding passenger processing in airports is the only viable way for air traffic growth to match expected demand.

US progress

New York-based JetBlue has perhaps been the most aggressive airline in the US in using facial biometrics to facilitate passenger self-boarding. The airline implemented the program in conjunction with CBP for flights from Boston to select Caribbean destinations as a pilot program in June 2017.

In response to an inquiry from ATW, the airline said “self-boarding is available on some international flights departing from select JetBlue focus cities” and noted the flights from Boston to the Caribbean are now well beyond the “pilot” phase of the program.

“We have truly refined the technology, distancing the process from being a ‘pilot’ to having it become an essential part of our daily operations,” JetBlue said.

The airline allows passengers to opt out.

“JetBlue does not require customers to board using facial recognition,” the carrier said. “Our airport operations crewmembers make announcements at the gate, educating customers on the self-boarding process and how it works; this is done when welcoming travelers to the flight as well as prior to boarding. Additionally, there is signage from US CBP that lets travelers know self-boarding via facial recognition will be available for their flight. If a customer does not wish to participate, they simply tell the crewmember stationed next to the camera before stepping up and they will be directed to the manual line at the podium for passport checks and to have their boarding pass scanned.”

The airline is also quick to assure that it does not keep passengers’ facial biometrics on file.

“JetBlue does not have access to customer photos and as such, does not save them,” the airline said. “The US CBP is already aware of who is traveling on a flight, since all international departures go through their systems when a customer’s passport information is added at check-in. The photo captured at the gate is sent directly to US CBP, who then compares it against their passport gallery of those on the flight manifest. If a match is found, they will send back a positive result, which we will then use to board the customer. If no match is found, an error message will be shown and the customer will be directed to visit the podium to have their passport manually inspected and boarding pass scanned. It’s important to note that US CBP only sends a positive or negative result back to JetBlue, not a picture.”

JetBlue said customer response to facial recognition boarding has “been overwhelmingly positive,” adding, “We see over a 90% participation rate on each flight. With our self-boarding program, we’re utilizing technology to help remove some of the friction points associated with travel by making the boarding process simpler. The process also allows our crewmembers to come out from behind the podium and interact with customers in a less transactional way.”

The Port of Seattle, meanwhile, said it was not inherently opposed to biometrics, but wants the technology to be used properly. It has set out a series of principles that it hopes to refine into enforceable policies this year. Facial recognition should only be used if it is “justified—biometrics should be used only for a clear and intended purpose and not for surveillance on large groups without a lawful purpose,” the port stated.

All biometric identification programs should also be voluntary, the port said: “Reasonable alternatives should be provided for US citizens who do not wish to participate through an opt-in or opt-out process.” In addition, data gathered in biometric identification “should be stored for no longer than required by applicable law or regulations and should be protected against unauthorized access or use.”

The port said all biometric processes should be transparent and “reports on the performance and effectiveness of the technology should also be made public to ensure accountability,” adding that “port staff and partners should act ethically when deploying technology or handling biometric data.”

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.