Is Facial Recognition the Key to Safe, Efficient Airports?

Documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center show that U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to use facial recognition at 20 major international airports on 16,300 flights per week by 2021.

by Megan Rowe, The Spokesman-Review / March 20, 2019
Shutterstock/Bignai

(TNS) — Spokane International Airport’s CEO Larry Krauter said it’s too early to determine the government’s plan to use facial recognition at international airports. The technology could someday improve security and efficiency at airports.

“From the perspective of many of these international gateway airports, better and quicker is going to sound pretty promising over the long term,” Krauter said.

In March 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expediting an Obama administration law that planned for this technology, but a March 11 report from BuzzFeed news returned the plan to the forefront.

Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research organization, obtained documents that show U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to use facial recognition at 20 major international airports on 16,300 flights per week by 2021. The technology is already being used at 17 international airports, according to BuzzFeed.

Krauter said if the rollout is successful, the technology will be vetted by the time it reaches Spokane International.

“I could envision trial programs over some period of time with the Transportation Security Administration and then trial programs by the airlines,” Krauter said. “Some have begun looking at that and experimenting with those types of things.”

Facial recognition technology could possibly be used in lieu of a boarding pass, Krauter said. He anticipates that would shorten waits in security lines. Another possibility is that airlines might choose to use the technology at the airline gates.

Krauter foresees consumer advocacy groups would have privacy concerns regarding facial recognition technology.

“I think there are going to be a number of concerns about how is this info gathered, where is it gathered and what becomes of it, all those types of questions,” Krauter said. “I think that those are valid questions that need to be answered.”

Krauter said when millimeter wave technology was implemented, consumer advocates brought concerns to the TSA that the full-body scan was too invasive, and ultimately their complaint was heard.

“There were some concerns expressed about how much of the body image was being viewed even though that image was being viewed in a secure way, but (the TSA) made changes to the algorithms within that to address those concerns,” Krauter said.

Federal and state legislation is taking a closer look at privacy issues. On March 6, the Washington state Senate passed a bill that would place restrictions on facial recognition, but the bill did not directly address use in transportation or border security.

In May, Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking the project be suspended to allow stakeholders an opportunity to express concerns with the program and gather more information.

“We request that DHS not only include the ‘match rates,’ indicating how often facial scans ‘match’ photos contained in a database, but also the ‘true reject’ rate – the rate at which travelers using fraudulent credentials are accurately rejected,” they wrote.

Aside from policymaking issues, deploying facial recognition technology in airports will be a large undertaking from an operational standpoint, Krauter said.

“You’re talking about investing in equipment and then deploying that equipment,” he said. “… you’re talking about a pretty significant investment that has to be made by both the government and the private sector in that process, and those things are going to take some time.”

©2019 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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