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This Conversation Between A Passenger And An Airline Should Absolutely Terrify You

This Conversation Between A Passenger And An Airline Should Absolutely Terrify You
Jeff Edwards

A passenger raised some good questions after posting on social media about her experience boarding a flight using one of JetBlue’s new biometric-equipped gates. Unfortunately, the airline’s response only raised more questions. It turns out airlines’ use of facial recognition software isn’t exactly Big Brother, but it certainly sounds that way at first glance.

After a recent flight in which she was scanned by a camera rather than having to present identification or a boarding pass, one JetBlue passenger took to social media to ask some questions concerning exactly how much biometric data about her the airline has in its database. Fumbling for an answer, the airline responded that they simply use existing government databases and, perhaps predictably, internet outrage soon ensued.

“I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight,” MacKenzie Fegan wrote in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

“Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge. Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?”

In fact, JetBlue is quite proud of the technology that allows some passengers to use a smile rather than travel documents when flying internationally from John 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 those documents.

“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 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.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t how the airline explained the process to Fegan. Instead, a spokesperson responded with a cryptic reply that was more Blade Runner than public relations.

“The information is provided by the United States Department of Homeland Security from existing holdings,” the airline responded in a sinister-sounding Twitter response.

The carrier later clarified that the airline does not actually have access to the ‘existing holdings’ of the federal government, but simply transmits an image of the passenger which is then matched electronically with the passport photograph on record. This is, of course, a process that occurs thousands of times a day – even when facial recognition software is not in use.

Faced with this new information, Fegan had some other questions.

“So to be clear, the government provided my biometric data to a privately held company?” she wrote in a follow up post. “Did I consent to this? How long is my data held by @JetBlue? And even if I opt out at the scanners…you already have my information, correct?”

The use of facial recognition is done in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and doesn’t dramatically change the security steps taken at the gate or change the databases airlines access before boarding passengers on international flights.

Of course, this isn’t how the airline answered Fegan’s concerns.

“You’re able to opt out of this procedure, MacKenzie,” JetBlue replied. “Sorry if this made you feel uncomfortable.”

[Image Source: Shutterstock]

View Comments (8)

8 Comments

  1. NavSTL

    NavSTL

    April 23, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    “Biometric data” is an awfully spooky synonym for “picture.”

  2. Steve M

    April 23, 2019 at 5:49 pm

    This article, and the linked-to TV news piece, doesn’t really address how JetBlue got the passport photo. The TV station claims that DHS confirmed that JetBlue is comparing your face at the gate with your passport photo, but they never address how JetBlue gets the passport photo. There’s an implication that JetBlue is tied into a DHS database to do this. This may be the case, or it may not be. The photo on your passport’s data page is also stored in the RFID chip embedded in the passport. It would be easy enough for JetBlue to read this from the passport at time of check-in, and perhaps store it for future use of the same passport with online check-in without the need for any DHS database link. I have no idea if this is what’s actually happening.

  3. PHL

    April 23, 2019 at 7:08 pm

    Is a photograph considered biometrical data? either way, if you submit your picture to the US government (e.g for a passport), then it’s reasonable to expect they have you lock, stock and barrel. If they are granting access to airlines like JetBlue to use that pic to cross reference your boarding pass….well, then there needs to be more transparency. The truth is, however, that Big Brother is absolutely watching.

  4. compwhiz

    April 23, 2019 at 7:10 pm

    Really? I was expecting a lot more to be terrified about. Good article to debate the topic, but the title is definitely over the top.

  5. RFNJ

    April 24, 2019 at 4:47 am

    Why should this “terrify” us? So what? Some passenger was uninformed of a program that 50k other people already participated in. She has the option to opt out. If this helps speed up the boarding process in a secure manner, I don’t see the problem. Privacy? It doesn’t exist. You cannot walk 10 feet in NYC without being on camera. Your cell phone can be tracked. All your personal data is already online, in multiple places. That a company has decided to do this to the general betterment of their service is somehow sinister is ridiculous.

  6. Taco Tuesday

    April 24, 2019 at 5:48 am

    I’m curious about the headline for this story. Why in the world would this “terrify” me? Data about me exists in all sorts of places. This story is merely about making use of it in one of it’s locations. I am happy about this convenience, but sad I clicked on the article.

  7. SMHarman

    April 24, 2019 at 9:46 am

    But that’s not how it works. One of two options

    (1) Jetblue sends the photo they just took to USCIS, their system matches the photo against your passport photo. Their system sends a go/no go message back to Jet Blue. Your passport photo is not sent from USCIS to jet blue.
    (2) Your passport photo is also on the chip on your passport, jetblue pick that up when you scan your passport at check in. They likely check the total data set on the chip and the printed page to USCIS / homeland. Then the photo is there for verification at check in. Flying international you consent for the airline to collect your passport data on behalf of USCIS to travel.

  8. BMGRAHAM

    May 20, 2019 at 6:33 pm

    It’s nothing to be terrified about.

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