Fort Worth-based American Airlines tiptoed right through the dystopic tulips Tuesday, issuing a cheery press release about its newest locally available technology.
Travelers flying on certain flights taking off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport's Terminal D can now board by having their face scanned, rather than going through the normal boarding process.
“American is committed to ensuring that DFW remains a premier gateway,” said Cedric Rockamore, vice president of DFW Hub Operations at American. “As its largest hub, implementing new technology like biometric boarding gives us the opportunity to enhance the airport experience in partnership with CBP. This new technology allows us to provide a more seamless and modern experience for both our customers and team members.”
According to the airline, facial scans obtained at the gate will be sent to "an existing cloud-based (Customs and Border Patrol) database." If the scan matches the flyer's passport photo, he or she is good to go. Anyone who doesn't come back as a match will be cleared to board manually, American says.
“Facial recognition makes the process for verifying the identity of travelers more efficient, accurate and secure,” said Judson W. Murdock II, CBP's Houston field office director. “This technology also enhances the boarding process for international flights, which is a win-win for airlines and travelers.”
One group for whom the technology isn't a win is technology privacy advocates. Giving away one's biometric data always comes with a risk, according to Electronic Privacy and Information Center (EPIC) president and executive director Marc Rotenberg.
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"The problem right now in the United States is that we don't have comprehensive privacy legislation," Rotenberg says. "Companies can easily say one thing, do another, change their minds later, modify the policy. ... We would be more confident about a company saying they would not retain the data if they were prohibited by law from doing that, but that's not where we are in the U.S."
Rotenberg and EPIC support a suspension on using facial-recognition techniques until comprehensive federal privacy legislation becomes law.
While travelers with U.S. passports can opt out of the facial recognition and use their boarding pass instead, it's hard to understand why the facial-scan program was implemented in the first place, Rotenberg says.
"It's an interesting question, particularly today when it's so easy for people to use electronic boarding passes on their cellphones. I'm curious why American Airlines would decide to take this route," he says. "The big difference, as long as we're using the two examples, if you take an electronic boarding pass and present it, you're in control of the disclosure of that information and you know who you're showing the electronic barcode to while you're doing it. Facial-image identification is very different, and it does allow companies and agencies to identify people in public spaces whether or not they know that it's happening."