Companies such as JetBlue began utilizing the technology after Trump issued an executive order pushing for its use in US airports
A new tool launched by privacy activists offers to help travelers avoid increasingly invasive facial recognition technologies in airports.
Activist groups Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and CREDO on Wednesday unveiled a new website called AirlinePrivacy.com, which shows users what airlines use facial recognition to verify the identity of passengers before boarding. The site also helps customers to directly book flights with airlines that don’t use facial recognition technologies.
Airlines’ use of facial recognition technology is raising fresh questions about privacy and data security, advocates have argued.
Instead of verifying passengers’ details by scanning a boarding pass, the technology – which is provided by government agencies – scans passengers’ face and sends that information to border control to verify identity and flight details.
JetBlue began using the technology in 2017 in partnership with federal agencies, after Donald Trump issued an executive order pushing for the use of facial recognition technology in US airports.
Since then, more airlines have begun incorporating the technology, including Delta, American Airlines, British Airways and Lufthansa.
Airlines that do not use facial recognition technology include Alaska, United, Southwest, Allegiant and Air Canada.
Although airlines say they do not store passengers’ data, it is shared with federal agencies that are able to store it. A spokesperson from US Customs and Border Protection said it retains biographic exit records for US citizens for 15 years and for non-citizens for 75 years. Photos are only kept for 12 hours.
“CBP is committed to protecting the privacy of all travelers and has issued several privacy impact assessments related to entry/exit, employed strong technical security safeguards and has limited the amount of personally identifiable information used in the transaction,” the spokesperson said.
Though biometric boarding programs are not a security requirement for flights in the US, many passengers may not know they can decline its use. In most cases, the technology is implemented on an opt-out basis, meaning passengers are automatically enrolled unless they instruct otherwise.
The opt-out basis of the programs puts the onus of maintaining privacy on the consumer, who may not know they are being tracked to begin with, said Tihi Hayslett, a senior campaigner at Demand Progress, another activist group.
“If you are opting in, you are giving explicit consent for whatever is happening, but the fact that it is opt-out means the assumption is that everyone who is flying JetBlue wants to be in the facial recognition system, and that is just not true,” said Jelani Drew, a campaigner at Fight for the Future, a privacy activist group. According to Drew, airlines’ use of the technology marks a new frontier in privacy invasions.
American Airlines told the Guardian it is only using biometric technology in a pilot program at LAX airport in Los Angeles and users can opt out in favor of using boarding passes. Lufthansa said its program is also only in use at LAX and users are able to opt out of facial recognition. Delta said its biometrics program is limited to Atlanta international airport and that users can opt out and use a boarding pass. British Airways did not immediately respond to request for comment regarding its practices.
Wednesday’s launch of the website comes as scrutiny of facial recognition technologies has heightened. In May, San Francisco became the first city in the United states to ban the use of facial recognition technology. Shareholders of Amazon have been pushing the company to stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement. A 2016 Georgetown University study found roughly 117 million people’s identities are already in facial recognition databases and there is minimal legal instruction on how that data can be used.
In a hearing of the US House oversight committee on the use of facial recognition technologies, the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned Austin Gould, an official at the Transportation Security Administration, about the ethics of the deployment of these features at airports and made him clarify on the record that users cannot opt in to the program, only opt out.
“Requiring facial scanning before boarding a flight isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a creepy and alarming invasion of our privacy,” said Hayslett, the Demand Progress campaigner. “This is an appalling attack on privacy and basic rights by JetBlue and we need to stop it now before it becomes the new normal.”