Privacy activists launch campaign against airlines using facial recognition technology

Privacy activists launch campaign against airlines using facial recognition technology
© Greg Nash

A group of privacy activists on Wednesday launched a campaign calling out airlines that use facial recognition technology to scan passengers in coordination with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Digital rights group Fight for the Future publicly unveiled a new website that encourages privacy-minded passengers to contact the airlines currently partnering with CBP to roll out facial recognition scanning — including top companies such as JetBlue, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and British Airways.

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And it encourages passengers to buy tickets with companies they are calling "privacy-conscious," such as Alaska, United and Southwest.

"The idea behind running a campaign like this is to get people to really praise the ones who are not doing it right now and opt out of flying with the airlines that are doing it right now," Jelani Drew, a campaigner with Fight for the Future, told The Hill in a phone interview.

The Department of Homeland Security this year said it plans to use facial recognition technology on nearly all departing air passengers within the next four years. The department has been implementing its “biometric exit” program, which photographs some visitors when they are departing the U.S., for years, expanding to 15 major airports with plans to reach five more.  

The stated purpose of the program is to identify non-U.S. citizens who have overstayed their visas, but it captures the faces of U.S. citizens as well. The agency says it has successfully identified 7,000 people at major U.S. airports who have overstayed their visas.

Currently, CBP says passengers are welcome to decline to participate in the program. But according to the airlines partnering with the agency, very few passengers do so.

"Several airlines have instituted biometric boarding programs that scan passengers’ faces before letting them on to international flights," Fight for the Future's website says. "But there are no regulations on the use of facial recognition, which means these technologies are far too easy to abuse."

JetBlue in an email to The Hill said it is implementing facial recognition technology to "simplify the boarding process."

The program asks passengers to scan their faces in order to verify their identity. The photo captured at the gate is sent to CBP, which then compares it against the agency's gallery of passport photos.

"Facial recognition is an innovative technology that will change the future of air travel," JetBlue said in the description of its program. "With our self-boarding program, we’re utilizing technology to help remove some of the friction points associated with travel by making the boarding process simpler." 

A Delta spokesman told The Hill that the process is much like when an agent checks a passenger's passport. 

“Protecting customers’ security and privacy is a responsibility all Delta people take extremely seriously," Delta said in a statement. "That’s why we partnered with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to launch facial recognition technology in our efforts to reduce stress during travel and make moving through the airport easier."

The airlines say they do not access to the photo database.

Fight for the Future put together the campaign with help from activist groups Demand Progress and CREDO Action.

“Requiring facial scanning before boarding a flight isn't just an inconvenience, it's a creepy and alarming invasion of our privacy," Tihi Hayslett, senior campaigner at Demand Progress, said in a statement.

"These airlines continue to dodge important questions about who, in the airline industry and in the government, will have access to passengers' biometric data, for how long, and to what ends? This is an appalling attack on privacy and basic rights by JetBlue and we need to stop it now before it becomes the new normal."

Drew from Fight for the Future said they began working on the campaign after an exchange about facial recognition scanning between a journalist and JetBlue went viral on Twitter. After journalist MacKenzie Fegan posted a message about her face being scanned by JetBlue, the airline's official Twitter account responded, "You're able to opt out of this procedure, MacKenzie. Sorry if this made you feel uncomfortable." 

The campaign comes as Congress intensifies its scrutiny of facial recognition technology.

At a hearing on Tuesday, a representative with the Transportation Security Administration testified about the agency's use of facial recognition to scan passengers, claiming it can help make the process safer and more efficient.

Lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee said they are planning to draw up legislative proposals that would provide more guardrails around the sensitive technology, which has been shown to misidentify vulnerable populations such as women and people of color at higher rates.

According to Fight for the Future, about 57,000 people have signed onto petitions calling on JetBlue to drop its biometric boarding program.

Updated: 5:59 p.m.