The Government Has Found Another Way to Invade Your Privacy

By Kaitlin Liebling

The government will soon have another way to track you, and no, it isn’t through your phone. Instead, this new technology will slowly creep into a ubiquitous factor of American life: airports.

Someday soon, your face may be all the passport you need to enter a plane. A biometric scanner, posted in security lines and outside of plane boarding, would determine whether your face matched a government database of passport photos. A “no” would signify a potential illegal passenger, while a “yes” would allow you on board with no inconvenient shuffling of passport documents.

In some ways, this technology is already being implemented. According to the Washington Post, at 15 airports, including Chicago’s O’Hare, the faces of travelers are already being scanned before they leave the country. The tech has been used over 3 million times since it was first implemented in 2017. And in November of this year, the TSA will begin testing facial recognition with the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, allowing them “to automate many processes in the travel experience, from self-service bag drop, to ID verification, to boarding a flight.”

“Advantages” of Facial Recognition Technology

Indeed, one of the touted benefits of the technology is its ability to reduce passenger wait times. In one test, officials at Virginia’s Dulles airport scanned passenger’s faces before they boarded the plane, rather than waiting for passengers to open purses or check carry-ons for their passport. The normal boarding time for the 350-seat Airbus A380 is 40 minutes. With the facial recognition tech speeding up the process, the time was reduced to 20 minutes.

Another proposed advantage of the technology is its ability to tighten airport security. In fact, it has already caught a passenger traveling with fraudulent documents. After three days in use at Dulles Airport, a 26-year-old man traveling with a French passport was flagged by the system, which alerted authorities that the man’s face did not match his passport photo. After a search, TSA officials found the man’s real ID, from the Republic of Congo, hidden in his shoe.

Privacy Concerns Surrounding the Tech

But do the advantages of the tech outweigh the privacy concerns? I don’t think so, and many privacy advocates would agree.

They fear a “Big Brother” system, where the government constantly monitors and tracks its citizens. Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “It’s a very ripe set of data that can be misused. They say it’s for catching people for using fake IDs, but it could be very tempting to expand the system.”

Some have already tried to monetize this system. An associate for JetBlue airlines recently indicated the company’s interest in using the face scanning technology to “‘hypertarget’ customers for advertising purposes.” This means airlines may make money off taking a picture of your face, using the information provided to choose ads the airline thinks would appeal to you.

Such concerns may be unfounded if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deal with the airlines prohibits such usage of the technology. But customers must remain in the dark on such a topic, for the contracts are not made publically available.

In fact, the DHS retains a large amount of power over how it regulates the usage of the data. No Congressional law explicitly bans the government from extracting biometric data from its citizens, giving the DHS a loophole to determine its own boundaries. If the technology proves to be effective, the ‘boundaries’ the DHS sets on itself may expand, allowing the photographs to be kept for a longer amount of time.

For people who are not United States citizens, the privacy concerns are even more dire. In the current DHS policy, US citizens have the photos taken of them at the airport deleted after 12 hours. For non-citizens, photos of them departing the US will be kept for 14 days. Photos of them arriving in the States will enter into a DHS system and remain there for 75 years.

There also remain questions about the technology’s accuracy. A report conducted by Georgetown Law School found that the system misidentified 1 in 25 legal passengers as traveling under fraudulent documents. This could “cause 1,632 passengers to be wrongfully delayed or denied boarding every day at New York’s John F. Kennedy ( JFK) International Airport alone.” Rather than making the boarding process easier, the apparent flaws in facial recognition could make the process much, much worse for an unlucky few.

The DHS acknowledges this fact and has tried to increase the accuracy of the tests. However, the Georgetown report concludes that they may have done so at the expense of letting imposters walk free. In other words, if the requirements of the tech are relaxed so fewer people with a valid ID are stopped, more people with fake IDs will be able to get through. It’s a tough balancing act, and one the DHS has not proven it can achieve.

Thus, it seems clear that facial scanning technology in airports is both unregulated and dangerous. An increased transparency into DHS processes and more regulation of the tech must be seen before privacy concerns can be abated.

The next time you go to the airport, be prepared. A picture of you may just end up in a government database- for the next hours, days, or even years.

Big Brother is always watching.


Photo courtesy of Glenn Fawcett