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.
I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight. 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?
— MacKenzie Fegan (@mackenzief) April 17, 2019
“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.”
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