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MacKenzie Fagan and the Problem With Paperless Travel

MacKenzie Fagan and the Problem With Paperless Travel
Jeff Edwards

Privacy concerns about the use of biometric identification, including facial recognition software, have not slowed down the march to use the new technologies to quickly identify passengers at airport boarding kiosks, security checkpoints and ports of entry, but the convenience of paperless travel doesn’t come without a cost.

It has been less than six months since a JetBlue passenger famously questioned whether or not she had agreed to allow the airline to use facial recognition software in lieu of asking for a passport and boarding pass when she arrived for her flight departing the U.S. While MacKenzie Fagan wasn’t alone in her privacy concerns, her moment in the spotlight doesn’t appear to have slowed the move towards using biometrics, and specifically facial recognition, technology at airports around the globe.

JetBlue quickly addressed Fegan’s concerns but didn’t appear especially remorseful about the policy. In fact, the airline explicitly put the onus on passengers to shield themselves from any perceived invasion of privacy.

“You’re able to opt out of this procedure, MacKenzie,” JetBlue offered in response to Fagan’s Twitter post. “Sorry if this made you feel uncomfortable.”

The airline is actually quite proud of the technology that allows many of its passengers to use facial recognition software instead of travel documents when flying internationally. The program has since expanded from a few select gates atJohn F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL). Rather than displaying boarding passes and passports, the airline uses facial recognition to instantly match flyers to a database maintained by the U.S. government.

“Since the program’s launch in 2017, more than 50,000 customers have participated in biometric boarding on 500 plus flights across all four cities,” the airline said in a November 2018 release lauding the new technology. “There is no pre-registration required. Customers can simply step up to the camera for a photo match and make their way onto the aircraft.”

In a recent article revisiting the viral exchange between a JetBlue passenger and the airline’s social media team, CNN’s Francesca Street notes that the use of facial recognition technology in the terminal has exploded since MacKenzie Fegan first highlighted the issue. In the intervening months, it feels almost as if the use of biometric identification at the airport has become the rule rather than the exception.

“We are increasingly moving towards this type of automation – personal data and biometric data being available to companies and to corporations,” Fegan told CNN this week. “I had a lot of questions, I think everybody should have a lot of questions.”

It seems these lingering questions won’t be slowing down progress. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has publicly stated that it expects facial recognition technology and biometric scanners to be in use at nearly all U.S airports by 2023. The agency says it has already taken steps to achieve the goal of implementing biometric technology for at least 97% of all departing commercial air travelers.

Airlines say the new technology used to match passengers to passport records is different from having a gate agent perform the function, only in that facial recognition software is faster, more accurate and more convenient for air travelers. The airline industry insists that safeguards already in place would prevent biometric data from being compiled inappropriately or otherwise misused.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a much less optimistic view of the trend. The group says, in many cases, passengers are no longer given the choice to “opt out.” The ACLU has come out strongly against the plans to require facial recognition screening for nearly all U.S. citizens departing the country.

“There are plenty of significant and problematic societal implications of this program,” the ACLU said in a statement decrying the Homeland Security moves. “The biggest from a privacy perspective is that it represents a major step—probably the most major yet—in placing the United States on the road toward widespread use of face recognition as a technology for tracking and control, and for very little gain.”

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1 Comment

  1. FlyingNone

    October 10, 2019 at 10:00 pm

    At what point and where is someone’s passport looked at to match up with facial recognition ? I envision many people going through security with a driver’s license only to be told when they land in Columbia or some other foreign country that they can’t get in because they don’t have a passport.

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