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Face Scans are the Future of International Travel

Cartoon of a man getting a face scan at the airport.

The Orlando International Airport is the first ever airport in the United States to use face scans for all incoming and outgoing international flights. Other airports across the country, including New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami, and Houston, already use face scanning for some flights. The Orlando airport, however, will require the face scans for all international travelers. Undoubtedly, many travelers will be happy with the possibility of improvement in check-in lines. Still, critics are concerned with the privacy issues of the facial recognition technology in airports and its impact on international travel.

The Face Scanning Process

First, a face scanner will take images of passengers. Next, these images are compared to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database that contains facial images of passengers on the flight list, for identity verification. Ideally, international travel passengers and the airlines will benefit the most from the proposed face scans, as this will shorten the boarding time by around 15 minutes.

Facial Recognition Technology in Airports showing the Future of International Travel
Face Scans, the Future of International Travel

For departing flights, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) creates a biometric entry of the passengers and stores them in a private cloud. The passenger enters a booth for picture taking and matched to the database. In case the photo does not match, the passenger can show his visa or passport.

For incoming flights, the CBP builds a gallery of the passengers according to the flight manifest. The pictures come from existing government databases containing visa and passport pictures. The passengers enter the booth for a photo for matching with the collated database. There is still an interview and luggage inspection as part of the customs process.

Advantages of Face Scans in International Travel

One advantage of face scans is that the person’s face is verified by a source outside of his documentation. Supposedly, this is a more secure method than the traditional entry and exit procedure where there is dependence on the passport for identification. Another advantage is the speed of verification since it only takes two seconds to verify the passenger’s image during international travel.

Mandated by Congress in 2004, face scanning is the first biometric technology for noncitizens arriving and leaving the US. Under the current rules, American citizens can request for an opt out of the process and rely on traditional passport verification only during international travel.

Face scanning technology is already in use in a variety of venues. In stadiums, people’s faces are scanned as they pass the turnstiles. These are particularly useful in places where hooliganism can occur. This helps identify known sports hooligans, who are then promptly escorted out of the premises. Other uses of face scanning include police surveillance where police officers in their vehicles scan pedestrian traffic for persons wanted for criminal offense. These technologies allow for continuous sweeps of the facial recognition scanner, picking up the faces and comparing with a database in real time.

Concerns for Privacy

The process behind the technology of face scans is simple. Authorities keep the images in the database for only two weeks before deletion. However, there is concern that the images may be kept for a longer period. Furthermore, it can be used in other applications, or merged and stored elsewhere. Privacy concerns are high considering the possible misuse of the database.

Harrison Rudolph of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law co-authored a report criticizing face scans at airport departure gates. He cites that privacy protection should be paramount. In addition, the DHS should enforce fairness and anti-bias guarantees.

Becoming Commonplace in International Travel Airport Security

The Orlando International Airport is one of the busiest airports in Florida. It is the gateway for close to six million international travelers a year. With that many travelers, face scans will help make getting in and out of the airport easier. To clarify, the face scanner is separate from the airport body scanners. The body scanners are a security gate for all passengers, to protect the airlines from terrorism. The facial recognition scanner allows for faster processing of airline boarding and arrivals. There is no news about the full implementation of this technology in other airports. However, with Orlando as the first project site, and other airports partially implementing it, it is only a matter of time before this becomes the standard for other airports.


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