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'So Overboard It Should Be Illegal': Use of Facial Recognition in Airports Draws Anger

"It's actually the U.S. government that's implementing the biometric matching system that does all the hard analysis and crunching of the data."

Passengers at LAX using biometric boarding.

Passengers at LAX using biometric boarding. (Photo: Finnair Twitter)

A boarding technology for travelers using JetBlue is causing controversy due to a social media thread on the airline's use of facial recognition. 

Last week, traveler MacKenzie Fegan described her experience with the biometric technology in a social media post that got the attention of JetBlue's official Twitter account. 

In the exchange, which went viral, Fegan expressed her concern over the lack of communication from the airline about the technology and the lack of consent. 

"Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge," said Fegan. "Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?"

"You're able to opt out of this procedure, MacKenzie," said JetBlue's account. "Sorry if this made you feel uncomfortable."

The airline rolled out the new technology at airports in Boston, Atlanta, New York, and Washington, D.C. in April 2017 and officially implemented facial recognition boarding in November at New York's JFK Airport in November 2018.

JetBlue is relying on help from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as Sean Farrell, the portfolio director for government solutions at SITA, the company running the technology, explained in 2017.

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"We're basically capturing that picture at the boarding gate, providing it to U.S. Customs and Border Protection," said Farrell. "They're identifying the traveler."

"It's actually the U.S. government that's implementing the biometric matching system that does all the hard analysis and crunching of the data," Farrell added.

Biometric data functioning as a boarding pass is a technology being rolled out around the world as well—at airports in Europe, Asia, and expanding in America. 

"The improvement to security and the passenger experience are tremendously positive," said SITA's Sergio Colella, the company's president for Europe. "It explains the growing interest in this solution from both airlines and airports in Europe and around the world."

Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Program, said that the use of biometric data technology for boarding planes was a misuse of a very powerful tool. 

"Honestly, using face surveillance in place of tickets in the boarding process is like flooding your entire block to water your garden," said Crockford. "It might accomplish the goal, but it hurts you and everyone else in the process."

"It's so overboard it should be illegal," Crockford added. "Literally."

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