Do The Cameras Recognize Paranoia?

Waiting Room

The New York Times says that facial recognition is coming soon to an airport near you. And this year “could be the ‘tipping point’ for widespread biometrics use in air travel”.

Surveillance in the name of convenience. And “security”, of course.

In the United States, major airlines have increasingly invested in facial recognition technology as have government agencies in charge of aviation security. Overseas, a growing number of international airports are installing biometrics-enabled electronic gates and self-service kiosks at immigration and customs.

The technology’s adoption could mean enhanced security and faster processing for passengers, experts say. But it also raises concerns over privacy and ethics.

I don’t think it’s paranoid to say that “raises concerns” somewhat understates the potential for abuse in this technology.

Especially since this data is being held by both private companies and multiple governments around the world.

In exchange for putting your photo (and other information) into the system, the airline says it will shave “more than a minute off bag drop” and reduce  “security interaction from 25 seconds to about 10 seconds”.

There is another side to these plans, however. Which the writer gets to after all the airline and TSA reps have made their promises.

But critics believe that the technology’s convenience fails to outweigh a high potential for abuse — from unfettered surveillance to unintended effects like perpetuating racial and gender discrimination.

Cody Venzke, senior policy counsel on privacy and technology at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government had not yet shown a demonstrated need for facial recognition technology at airports and worried about a “nuclear scenario.”

“Facial recognition technology,” he said, could be “the foundation for a really robust and widespread government surveillance and tracking network.”

The piece ends by quoting a somewhat clueless  business traveler who was using Delta’s system at JFK.

“Honestly, my photo is on LinkedIn, it’s on a million social media sites,” he said. “If you really wanted to see a picture of me, you could.”

Except that none of those sites also has a record of where and when you traveled, potentially including who you interacted with, plus more data you might not want released on the web.

He, and many others, miss that there’s a huge difference between choosing to post information about yourself on LinkedIn and elsewhere, and allowing companies and governments to collect it automatically, in public places, often without your permission.

Remember, corporations haven’t had a very good track record when it comes to securing and ethically using the data they’ve already collected on their customers. Government warehousing of surveillance information is potentially even worse.

Or am I being paranoid… as I smile for the cameras?

The photo shows the restored main hall of a 1950’s-era terminal at JFK airport (then Idlewild), now part of the TWA Hotel. A very different era in airline travel.

2 Comments Do The Cameras Recognize Paranoia?

  1. Doug Johnson

    The Global Entry program which eases admittance to the US after traveling abroad uses a facial recognition scan. Coming home from Belize last night via the Atlanta airport, my friend and I spent literally seconds going through immigration while the line for standard checks looked to be at least 20 minutes long. Gave us more time to wait for our luggage :-) Minneapolis airport is also using facial recognition when boarding planes.

    Personally, I like the convenience, but even more so, I believe this will lead to a more secure transportation system if terrorists and others of dangerous intent can be more readily identified and removed from flights. I am more than happy to trade my “privacy” for a safer environment. Eggars book The Circle does a nice job examining the need for security vs the need for privacy.

    I lead a rather boring life. I’ve always said if someone (or something) were watching me, they wouldn’t be able to stay awake. Should I be doing more things about which remaining private would be needed?

    1. tim

      Thanks for the comment, Doug. I’m also a fan of Global Entry and completely understand the bargain between me and the government when it comes to submitting personal information. Although I think many of the “security” requirements implemented by TSA and other agencies does little to actually improve transportation safety. Much of it is just theater.

      The part of the Times story that bothered me is that now the airlines are collecting photos and other personal data in exchange for what they say is faster processing. The cynic in me thinks it’s more to reduce the number of staff they need.

      Anyway, my concern is that if that data gets hacked (and it’s probably more like when), plenty of bad actors, including ambitious politicians here and abroad, could use it to track people they don’t like. And that capability is enhanced when it’s matched with breeches at other companies.

      Paranoid? Maybe a little. :-)


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