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Authoritarian Tech

In a challenge to privacy, new facial recognition systems are rolling out across the world

Anyone who has recently passed through an airport will have noticed how new facial recognition systems have begun to assert themselves on all walks of travel.

Earlier this week, Heathrow Airport announced passengers will be able to use facial recognition technology as of this summer. The airport, which has around 80 million annual passengers, is introducing a new $65 million biometric system to cut down queueing times.

Passengers will be able to register for the service by linking their passports to their facial biometrics at the beginning of their journey; on subsequent visits to the airport, they will be able to walk through by looking into a camera. Heathrow Airport has said travelers can choose to opt out of using facial recognition technology, which has been provided by a British firm called Yoti.

Meanwhile, in the United States, JetBlue announced the expansion of its partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which allows the airline to verify the identity of passengers using facial recognition. JetBlue first ran a pilot of its biometric software system in 2017 and the company says it has verified over 50,000 customers since.

Not all passengers have embraced the technology, however. Last week, one JetBlue passenger took to Twitter, wondering when she had consented to JetBlue’s use of facial recognition in place of a boarding pass. MacKenzie Fagan also inquired as to how the airline was able to obtain a photo with which to match her face. The airline said the information had been provided by the United States Department of Homeland Security. Later, the airline clarified that photos are securely transmitted to the Customs and Border Protection database and that JetBlue does not have direct access to them and doesn’t store them.

Fagan was also informed she could opt out of the procedure.

The incident points to rising concerns from consumers about how personal data may be used or stored or shared by private companies, as well as the invasive nature of the tools being used. It also sums up the opaque nature of the guidelines or warnings which characterize how facial recognition is rolled out.

This last feature might be deliberately obtuse, however: last week, United Airlines was forced to cover cameras embedded in entertainment systems after passengers groups voiced privacy concerns. The cameras were included in premier class entertainment system purchased by the airline.

Speaking to Buzzfeed News, United Airlines said that the cameras would be covered from now on. The airline also said their purpose was never to monitor passengers, but to facilitate future uses such as providing video conferencing facilities for business travelers.

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