Last week, a Twitter conversation between an airline passenger and JetBlue went viral after she asked about the company’s creepy facial recognition cameras. Mostly, the passenger seemed shocked to learn airlines were scanning customers’ faces at all.
“Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera,” wrote writer MacKenzie Fegan. “Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?”
Fegan had a lot of questions about the program, and JetBlue’s official Twitter account didn’t offer many answers. As alarming as airport face scanners may be, however, their rollout across the U.S. has hardly been secret. And there’s a lot we can tell you about them that airlines’ customer service agents never will.
The use of facial recognition in American airports has been spearheaded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—part of the Department of Homeland Security—which has been testing these systems as part of its “Biometric Exit” program since 2015. The initiative scans the faces of passengers taking international flights out of the U.S. and matches them to identity photos the CBP has on file.
Earlier this month, Homeland Security said it plans to scan the faces of “over 97 percent” of departing international passengers by 2023. According to Buzzfeed, 17 U.S. airports are currently part of the program.
“Since its inception, over two million passengers on over 15,000 flights have used the technology on exit,” the agency boasted earlier this month. By the end of 2021, CBP has been given the goal of scanning the faces of passengers on 16,300 flights per week.
Both airports and airlines have been all too happy to participate in the scheme. JetBlue, Delta, Lufthansa, British Airways and, most recently, American Airlines have all tested CBP face scanners on their customers. These airlines emphasize that passengers can choose to opt out, but as Fegan’s case illustrates, this option isn’t always clear to customers. (Delta has said less than two percent of fliers at one terminal opted out of face recognition.)
JetBlue and Delta have even gone one step further, giving passengers more opportunities to have their faces scanned. In November, Delta debuted what it called America’s “first biometric terminal” in Atlanta, celebrating an (optional!) “end-to-end Delta Biometrics experience” that would use facial recognition for check-in, bag check, TSA identification, and boarding. And in December, JetBlue told Travel Weekly it planned to install two “self bag drop” machines in New York that would scan passengers’ faces and check them against CBP data.
While CBP has said it will only keep facial exit scans for a maximum of 14 days, the rules for partner airlines are vaguer. Speaking to the New York Times last summer, a CBP official said that while he doubted airlines would want to keep fliers’ biometric data, it “would really be up to them.”
More recently, CBP claimed in December that it has “developed business requirements which do not allow approved partners to retain the photos they collect.” If so, these requirements do not appear to have been made public, and it’s unclear when they were instituted.
In a statement to Gizmodo, a CBP spokesperson said “only CBP has access to this biometric data” and “no personally identifiable information associated with biometrics” is ever shared with partner companies. For their part, JetBlue, Delta, and American Airlines have said that they don’t retain facial scans and say they are sent directly to CBP for matching.
In a 2017 report, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology noted that by partnering with private companies, Homeland Security makes it easier for these companies to track travelers for their own business interests.
“[D]espite the risk that airlines will use biometric exit data and technology for their own tracking purposes, [the agency] has not published any guidelines for or agreements with its private partners,” wrote the authors.
As its name suggests, the Biometric Exit program scans people leaving the country. How this makes us any safer is difficult to explain. The government seems to believe that knowing—100 percent, for sure—when people legally admitted to the U.S. have left is important enough to scan everyone’s face.
In a recent report, Homeland Security bragged that the program has biometrically confirmed “over 7,000” cases of people leaving the country after their visas expired—again, leaving. Out of 2 million passengers, that’s a hit rate of about 0.0035 percent.
Asked what the Biometric Exit program does that traditional verification can’t, a CBP spokesperson told Gizmodo that facial scans help the agency secure the border, identify persons of interest, and improve statistical reporting. Additionally, the spokesperson said it was convenient for travelers.
Over and over again, facial recognition systems have been found to be less accurate when identifying women and people with dark complexions. Just last year, the ACLU found that Amazon’s face-scanning system matched 39 percent of non-white U.S. representatives to mugshot photos.
When it comes to CBP’s face-scanning program, we don’t even know how biased it may or may not be. Asked if the CBP’s facial scans had a disparate impact on any demographic groups, a CBP spokesperson told Gizmodo the agency was “still looking further into this question.” (A CBP official gave a similar answer in 2017.)
While airports might be the place where this creepy tech is being introduced the most rapidly, all kinds of industries are excited about the possibilities of facial recognition. Companies in the U.S. have tested out face-scanning kiosks designed to do everything from track fast food customers to secretly identify Taylor Swift stalkers.
Just last month, Twitter users were disturbed by a facial recognition kiosk in a Chinese airport that appeared to be passively scanning passersby. The New York Times recently reported that police in that country are now specifically requesting systems that can identify faces belonging to members of the Uighur ethnic minority. If we don’t demand tighter rules on face scanning, this type of surveillance won’t be surprising anymore: It will just be normal.
Update 4/23/2019 3:15 p.m. ET: This story has been updated throughout with comments from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.