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US airline says facial recognition saves nine minutes – but is the data exchange worth it?

facial recognition
Image: NPR

Over in the US, one airline is using facial recognition software to reduce the time we spend in line. But is the potential public surveillance risk worth it?  

 

 

Facial recognition technology is not a particularly new concept, considering that many Australians already use the technology as a way to access their iPhones, and automate the tagging of friends in Facebook photos. A few months ago, Sydney airport partnered with Qantas to facilitate what they called a “couch to gate” test, allowing facial recognition to identify passengers through the check-in, lounge access, bag drop and boarding processes. Similarly, facial recognition technology has started to be rolled out in schools, reigniting the debate around the pros and cons of access to this technology associated with the inevitable privacy loss. But when it comes to security around airports in association with the magnitude of people, it makes sense that Delta airlines announced on the 20th of September that they are rolling out the first biometric terminal at the Hatfield-Jackson Atlanta International terminal. The concept requires passengers to check in at home with their passport information, and then upon approaching a kiosk at the airport, a camera will take their image and compare it with the image on file with US Customs and Border protection.

The benefits, Delta claims, surpass the risks associated with the facial recognition technology, when one considers that they can save nine minutes during the check-in process. For regular travellers, this can be a huge deal considering the accumulative time that is wasted in airports over a period of months throughout the year. Critics, however, are saying that the biggest risk this technology has is its use of public surveillance.

In August 2018, the facial recognition tools at a US airport were able to identify a 26-year-old man from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who was posing as a French citizen. Despite the brevity of the find, experts believe that without better testings and tool iteration, wrongful arrests can be made. Boston’s Logan Airport ran similar tests previously finding that their technology had only a 61.4% accuracy rate.

Recently, stories have emerged about the 200 million CCTV cameras across China that regularly monitor its citizens, tracking activities to compile a form of “social credit”. Similarly, a high school in Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province, installed facial recognition cameras that scan students every 30 seconds, analysing how the students behave and also the effectiveness of the teachers.


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The impact of facial recognition on our day to day lives surpasses the ease of automation, minimising manual tasks and fumbling with photo IDs, and assists with streamlining both databases and ease of access, but it’s not without its critics. The concerns associated with databases compiling information around facial recognition are linked to data around fingerprints and retinal scans, with such methodologies being deemed more accurate than using faces and facial recognition technology. Easy and streamlined? Sure. But perfect? Hardly. Famously, a recent trial resulting in mass mistaken identity in the UK due to facial recognition technology highlighted the risks associated with integrating technology that can have such power over our freedom, ease to travel and ability to access sensitive information. A trial in South Wales, UK found that 2,400 false positives were generated from CCTV footage gathered, and innocent crowd members had been matched by the software as wanted criminals.

For those concerned less about a Bourne Identity moment, what happens as we age? What happens if you turn up to the airport looking vastly different to the passport image they have of you on file from ten years ago? What if you lost weight, put on weight, grow a beard? These questions have prompted users to test their iPhone X’s with makeup and beard challenges to test how sophisticated the technology is. It’s easy to find errors, and with that comes further testing by companies such as Amazon or Google to work towards perfecting this technology.

With airports rolling out facial recognition technology and our devices being seamlessly aligned to our biometric data, this technology will be integrated to become a normal part of our daily lives, similar to receiving a text message. However, with the technology being far from perfect, who will hold institutions to account with how they manage the mother-load of data being accumulated?

Depending on who you talk to, nine minutes shaved off at the airport is absolutely worth the exchange of biometric data, while others feel the risks outweigh the time saved.

 

 

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