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Facial Recognition May Boost Airport Security But Raises Privacy Worries

Facial Recognition May Boost Airport Security But Raises Privacy Worries

Charles Camiel looks into the camera for a facial recognition test before boarding his JetBlue flight to Aruba at Logan International Airport in Boston. Robin Lubbock/WBUR hide caption

toggle caption Robin Lubbock/WBUR Facial Recognition May Boost Airport Security But Raises Privacy Worries

Michelle Moynihan, who was flying to Aruba for a wedding, says facial recognition would make her life easier.

“Typically when I travel I have my three kids with me and I travel alone with them,” she says. “They’re all under age 10, so flipping through multiple boarding passes on my phone, making sure I have all the kids, all the backpacks, all the suitcases can be cumbersome and frustrating.”

Moynihan gets in line and right before she gets to the jet bridge, there’s a camera that’s about the size of a shoebox. It takes her photo and she gets a checkmark, saying she’s good to go. The whole process takes about 5 to 6 seconds.

“We’re basically capturing that picture at the boarding gate and then providing it to U.S. Customs and Border protection,” says Sean Farrell, who works for SITA, the company running this technology. SITA provides a lot of the IT infrastructure you see at airports.

Facial Recognition May Boost Airport Security But Raises Privacy Worries

“It’s actually the U.S. government that’s implementing the biometric matching system,” he says.

The government uses existing databases to compare a traveler’s face against all the other passengers on the flight manifest. JetBlue is pitching this idea of facial recognition as convenience for customers. It’s voluntary. But it’s also part of a broader push by Customs and Border Protection to create a biometric exit system to track non-U.S. citizens leaving the country. After the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a lot of talk about the necessity of a biometric exit system, but the tech and computing power just wasn’t good enough. Now, facial recognition experts say it’s more accurate.

And Farrell sees a future not too far off where our faces could be our IDs.

“The end game is that in a few years’ time you’ll be able to go through the airport basically just using your face,” he says. “If you have bags to drop off, you’ll be able to use the self-service system and just have your face captured and matched. You’ll then go to security, the same thing. … And then you go to the boarding gate, and again just use your biometric.”

Facial Recognition May Boost Airport Security But Raises Privacy Worries

But that worries people like Adam Schwartz, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. He says facial recognition is a uniquely invasive form of surveillance.

“We can change our bank account numbers, we even can change our names, but we cannot change our faces,” Schwartz says. “And once the information is out there, it could be misused.”

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, says she’s particularly concerned by the JetBlue program because of the government’s role.

“The biometric databases that the government is amassing are simply another tool, and a very powerful tool of government control,” she says.

Customs and Border Protection insists it will discard facial recognition photos taken of U.S. citizens at the airport, and only keep a database of non-U.S. citizens.

Facial Recognition May Boost Airport Security But Raises Privacy Worries

Back at Logan Airport, passenger Yeimy Quezada feels totally comfortable sharing her face instead of a barcode.

“Even your cellphone recognizes selfies and recognize faces, so I’m used to that technology already,” she says. “And, I’m not concerned about privacy because I’m a firm believer that if you’re not hiding anything, you shouldn’t be afraid of anything.”

Customs is running similar biometric tests at airports in Atlanta, New York and the Washington, D.C., area. The goal is to deploy facial recognition tech widely by early next year.

Asma Khalid leads WBUR’s BostonomiX team, which covers the people, startups and companies driving the innovation economy. You can follow them @BostonomiX.[1]


  1. ^ @BostonomiX (

Missing: A pet Russian tortoise. Last seen at the Japanese ambassador’s property.

Maui apparently isn t the only missing tortoise another Russian tortoise was spotted in a yard around 16th Street NW, according to a local blog posting about a week ago.

Wasn’t someone missing a tortoise in Tenleytown?[2]

PoPville (@PoPville) June 19, 2017[3]

Security officials at the ambassador s residence earlier had taken the Cohens poster and promised to keep their eyes peeled. Cohen also sent the embassy a message on Twitter.

@JapanEmbDC a passerby & ur security guard spotted a tortoise on residence grounds on Nebraska. We think it may be ours. Plz call 2023209093[4][5]

Andrew Cohen (@AWC4228) June 26, 2017[6]


  1. ^ When a parrot is held hostage or cats go MIA, this pet detective is on the case (
  2. ^ (
  3. ^ June 19, 2017 (
  4. ^ @JapanEmbDC (
  5. ^ (
  6. ^ June 26, 2017 (

This Alternative to the Laptop Ban Would Tighten Airport Security at …

U.S. officials say they have uncovered evidence that the Islamic State was using Mosul University laboratories to develop bombs[1] that could pass through airport screeners undetected. When the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, captured Mosul, it also took possession of the modern screening equipment at Mosul s airport that would allow it to test its new bomb designs. This previously classified information is thought to be the reason that the Department of Homeland Security barred laptops and other electronics larger than a smartphone from the cabins of incoming flights to the U.S.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly implemented a ban[2] that affected 10 cities from the Middle East and Africa. The ban affects about 50 flights a day from these areas in total. Shortly after the U.S. announced the ban, the United Kingdom announced a similar standard[3] for incoming flights to its own territory. The Trump administration is also debating whether or not to expand the ban to European airports[4]. However, expanding the laptop ban to include Europe would be much more costly than the existing ban and would affect up to 65 million people per year.

The Department of Homeland Security and Congress should consider a cost-benefit risk analysis and seek out alternatives[5] to the ban. The benefit of a laptop ban is that it makes it harder to use a bomb on a plane though terrorists could overcome the ban by traveling from other regions not affected by the ban, or by designing bombs to go off remotely. On the cost side of the equation, this policy would likely result in several billion dollars in losses to travelers and tourism, as well as increased potential for losses from theft or damage to devices and possible aircraft fires from electronics in the cargo hold.

In terms of alternatives, there seem to be several options. First, the ban could be expanded even further, excluding large devices from planes altogether and extending the ban globally, as this would undoubtedly increase international security, though at even greater cost. Second, risk-based screening policies[6] could be applied at checkpoints that allow lower-risk passengers to proceed normally through airport checkpoints, but subject higher-risk individuals and bags to more stringent screening.

Third, an increase in bomb detection capabilities, like bomb-sniffing dogs or bomb detection equipment, could be deployed, though certainly at some cost. Similarly, airports could improve their baggage screening equipment to stop bombs. Indeed, the Transportation Security Administration is testing new 3D checkpoint scanning technology[7] to do just that. This technology, called computed tomography, has been used on checked baggage for almost a decade, and it is now small, quiet, and cheap enough to be placed at security checkpoints across the country.

The scanner works by producing a 3D image that can be manipulated for a more thorough analysis. Moreover, this technology is expected to speed up the long lines that currently exist in airports because liquids, gels, aerosols, and electronic devices could remain in passengers carry-on bags[8].

Computed tomography is an example of a potential alternative that the Department of Homeland Security should consider when looking to improve aviation security. Going forward, the department should constantly explore solutions to keep pace with the constantly changing threat environment.


  1. ^ the Islamic State was using Mosul University laboratories to develop bombs (
  2. ^ Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly implemented a ban (
  3. ^ United Kingdom announced a similar standard (
  4. ^ expand the ban to European airports (
  5. ^ consider a cost-benefit risk analysis and seek out alternatives (
  6. ^ risk-based screening policies (
  7. ^ 3D checkpoint scanning technology (
  8. ^ liquids, gels, aerosols, and electronic devices could remain in passengers carry-on bags (
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