On Sunday, tech analyst Matthew Brennan tweeted an unsettling video of a facial recognition kiosk at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport. The kiosk seemed to give Brennan minutely personalized flight information as he walked by after automatically scanning his face in just seconds.
The tweet went viral, with many commenters writing how dystopian or terrifying they found the technology—suggesting we should be wary of the proliferation of biometric systems like those used in China.
“There’s one guarantee that I’ll never get to go to China now,” one Twitter user wrote in response. “That’s called fascism and it’s not moral or ok,” another comment read. But airport facial recognition technology isn’t new in China, and similar systems are already being implemented at airports in the United States.
In October, Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport reportedly debuted China’s first system that allowed facial recognition for automated check-in, security clearance, and boarding. And since 2016, the Department of Homeland Security has been testing facial recognition at U.S. airports. This biometric exit program (which has been criticized as buggy, unnecessary, and on shaky legal ground) uses photos taken at TSA checkpoints to perform facial recognition tests to verify international travelers’ identities. Documents recently obtained by Buzzfeed show that Homeland Security is now racing to implement this system at the top 20 airports in the U.S. by 2021.
And its not just the federal government that has been rolling out facial recognition at American airports. In May of 2017, Delta announced it was testing a face-scanning system at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport that allowed customers to check their bags, or, as the company called it in a press release, “biometric-based bag drop.”
The airline followed up those tests with what it celebrated as “the first biometric terminal” in the U.S. at Atlanta’s Maynard H. Jackson International Airport at the end of last year. Calling it an “end-to-end Delta Biometrics experience,” Delta’s system uses facial recognition kiosks for check-in, baggage check, TSA identification, and boarding. (The airline’s press materials stress that using this system is optional.)
Crucially, Delta’s face-scanning kiosks aren’t automatic, and flyers can opt out of using them, but America’s airport facial recognition programs raise many of the same concerns China’s do—right now, right here in the U.S. Anyone who cares about who’s scanning their face or how it will be used should be wary of this tech being promoted as a simple “convenience.”
Delta would not comment before time of publishing about the similarities or differences between its system and what is demonstrated in Brennan’s tweet. The Chinese kiosk seemed to be out in the open, scanning virtually anyone who approached the screen. Based on Delta’s press materials, the airline is only using facial recognition technology at specific terminals and checkpoints.
The intention Delta’s biometric program seems to be streamlining the process of walking through those checkpoints. No fumbling with a ticket or passport—just take a glimpse at a screen. As we’ve said before, the surveillance state will be extremely convenient.