Like it or not, facial recognition technology to check in for your flight will soon be arriving at an airport near you.
More than a dozen US airports are already rolling out the technology, with many more left before the US government reaches its goal of enrolling the 20 largest airports in the country by 2021.
Facial recognition is highly controversial and has many divided. On the one hand, it cuts down on paper tickets and it is easier for travelers to check in at the airport before their flight. But facial recognition also has technical problems. According to a Homeland Security watchdog, facial recognition systems used at airports only worked 85 percent in some cases. Homeland Security said the system is improving over time and will be ready by the supposedly 2021 deadline, even if the watchdog has its doubts.
Many also remain fearful of privacy and legal concerns. After all, it’s not Customs and Border Protection collecting your facial recognition data directly, it’s the airlines, and passing it on to the government.
Delta debuted the technology last year, scanning faces before passengers flew off. JetBlue did the same, too, and many more airlines are expected to sign up. This data is used to verify boarding passes before travelers arrive at your door. But it also goes through Customs and Border Protection to check passengers against their watch lists, and to crack down on those who overstay their visas.
Clearly that is traveler noise. In a recent Twitter exchange with JetBlue, the airline said customers “may choose not to participate in this procedure.”
That’s technically true, although you might not know it if you’re at one of the many airports in the US The Electronic Frontier Foundation found that unsubscribing isn’t easy, but it is possible.
If you are a citizen of the United States, you can choose to exclude yourself by telling an officer or employee of the airline at the time of a facial recognition exam. You will need your US passport with you, even if you are flying in the country. Border officials or airline staff will manually check your passport or boarding pass, as they normally would before boarding a plane.
Be on the lookout for any signs that you may unsubscribe, but also note that there may not be any. You may have to opt out multiple times to get to the airport until you get to the plane seat.
“It may sound trite, but right now, the key to opting for facial recognition is being vigilant,” wrote EFF’s Jason Kelley.
Bad news if you’re not an American: you won’t be able to opt out.
“Once the biometric exit program is a nationally established program, foreign nationals will be required to biometrically confirm their departure from the United States in the final [boarding] period, ”CBP spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said in an earlier email to TechCrunch. “This has been and is a mandate from Congress,” he said.
There are some exceptions, such as Canadian citizens who do not require a visa to enter the US are exempt, and holders of diplomatic and government visas.
Facial recognition data collected by airlines on US citizens is stored at Customs and Border Protection for 12 hours and two weeks, and 75 years for non-citizens. The data is stored in various government databases, which can be retrieved by border officials when arriving in or leaving the US.
Why should I choose not to participate? As an American, it is your right to refuse. The Department of Homeland Security once said that Americans who did not want their faces scanned at the airport should “refrain from traveling.” Now all it takes is a “no thanks.”