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  • Writer's pictureDEAN NELSON (he/him) CRDE, LLD

Coming to an airport near you

New York Times travel reporter Christine Chung soars to new Tech heights in her most recent Time's article looking at the dramatic technological shift sweeping America's airports.

Biometrics are transforming the way we travel. The technology, which identifies travellers using unique physical traits like fingerprints and faces, is becoming more common at airports in the United States. As a result, time-consuming rituals that once required repeated ID checks — such as bag dropping, security screening and boarding — are getting easier and faster.

Some experts believe that this will be the year that biometric use, primarily facial recognition, becomes standard at many airports. The technology offers several advantages: enhanced security, quicker processing of passengers and a more convenient airport experience. It also raises concerns about privacy, ethics and the possibility of broader surveillance.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain how biometrics are already altering many travelers’ airport experiences, and how critics are pushing back.

Change is here

T.S.A. checkpoints at dozens of airports across the country, from Denver to Miami, look different than they did only a few years ago.


The agency is using technology that takes a photo of a traveler and swiftly matches it to a scan of their ID. This process will expand to around 400 more airports in the coming years, though it remains optional; travelers can still go through security the old-fashioned way if they prefer.

The T.S.A. has also developed programs with some airlines to enable PreCheck travelers, who are approved for expedited screenings at more than 200 airports, to check bags and even pass through security checkpoints by just showing their faces, no ID scan required. Airlines say these changes can save substantial time and make a noticeable difference in moving passengers through the airport.


Travellers will also have their identities confirmed by facial recognition when they are entering or leaving the United States. The government’s biometric entry system is fully operational, and the system to identify departing travelers using facial recognition is now in place at nearly 50 airports. It is set to be installed at every airport with international departures by 2026.


Privacy concerns

Executives at various airlines tell me they believe passengers are becoming more comfortable with using biometrics in their daily lives. Many people regularly use facial recognition to unlock their phones, and shoppers can use their palms to pay for groceries at some Whole Foods stores.


But not everyone is happy with the technology’s growth. Critics say the systems lack guardrails to ensure people’s biological data is not misused. And, though they have improved over the years, facial-recognition algorithms have historically been shown to work better on white faces.

The Traveler Privacy Protection Act, a bill introduced by Senators Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, and John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, seeks to halt the T.S.A.’s ongoing facial-recognition program. The bill’s sponsors say they have serious concerns regarding security and the possibility of racial 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 he expressed concern over what he called the “nuclear scenario.”

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


Continue to read the full story on the rise of biometrics at airports, which includes details on the risks of using your face as an ID and forthcoming facial-recognition expansions from major airlines.


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