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Security is a growing challenge for airlines, and demands for new technology are a burden on budgets. Sally White reports on the pros and cons

We are all becoming human bar codes! Already a booming $14 billion industry, in demand from market researchers, governments, retailers, hotel groups and a myriad others, facial recognition technology has been given a further boost by US President Donald Trump. Facial recognition checks are a key measure currently being introduced to escape the aircraft cabin ban on laptops and other electronic devices. This comes along with sophisticated X-rays, ultrasound, increased security staff and sniffer dogs.

Great business for the surreptitious recorders of our images – the likes of Apple, Google, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft! And for the engineers such as BAE Systems and Ultra Electronics who make the kit.  Not so great for the operators of airports and airlines who must now foot rising bills. Etihad, Emirates and Turkish airlines have all announced that they are ‘working with the US’ to satisfy the new security rules. Abu Dhabi’s airport is now exempt.

The BBC says the ‘working’ with the US currently covers 105 countries. The Trump administration would like to push out the bans on flights from just about everywhere. However, the current ban leaves just Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait awaiting for clearance. Saudia, the flagship carrier for Saudi Arabia, says passengers will be able to take the electronics on US flights from July 19th. So far governments and airlines from other countries have succeeded in curbing the security enthusiasm for bans of US officials and agreeing on collaborative action.

Lufthansa’s CEO, Carsten Spohr, referring to this dialogue, explained to Bloomberg that, for example, the introduction of behaviour detection technology offered more than some other security measures. Screening at security gates could spot potential threats without asking passengers to travel without their laptops. 

They know who you are

Security incorporating facial recognition has been in place for years: governments buy it for border checks, hotels use it to spot VIP and celebrity guests, casinos don’t like frequent winners and the police look for criminals. A story in the Guardian reports that Saks’ Fifth Avenue new high tech Toronto store is using it not just for security, but to check customer reactions for marketing purposes. (Think of the data that is exchanged when customers use in-store wifi to log on to Facebook or Twitter!)

As a BBC programme commented a few weeks ago, wherever you are… “smile, you are on camera, and they know who you are!” They don’t only know that, as news website Marketwatch points out, but “face-reading technology can also now detect your emotions, even those you don’t know you are projecting.”

The BBC quoted Carl Gohringer, of facial recognition technologists, Allevate, which works with law enforcement, intelligence and government agencies, says: "The amount of media - such as videos and photos – available ….. to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, is staggering.

“We're well beyond the point where all of it is usable or viewable by us as human beings. So technology will be applied that results in new and interesting mechanisms of accessing, analysing, ordering, structuring and processing this visual minefield," he added.

We're well beyond the point where all of it is usable or viewable by us as human beings

Procedures to comply with the new security rules adopted by Emirates include passengers uploading biometric details, such as selfies, to their smartphones and using the data to scan through boarding gates. Its announcement says that the technology will be rolled out of the next 18 months, and will also be used at airport immigration.

JetBlue and Delta are both, says Bloomberg, testing fingerprint as well as facial recognition to replace boarding passes, trialling these at US airports. American Airlines, working with Analogic, is using sophisticated x-rays (tomography) used in the medical field to test checking baggage.

Facial recognition technology and biometric security can already be seen at most European and US airports. Airlines including KLM, JetBlue, Delta and British Airways have all announced trials with the technology. London and Dubai are using technology made by Silicon Valley biometrics specialist Tascent for screening. (Tascent envisages systems where travellers will also be able to use their eyes to confirm seats!)

Privacy concerns inevitable

US Customs and Border Protection’s Larry Panetta told online magazine The Verge that “facial recognition is the path forward we’re working on. We currently have everyone’s photo, so we don’t need to do any sort of enrolment. We have access to the Department of State records so we have photos of US Citizens, we have visa photos, we have photos of people when they cross into the US and their biometrics are captured into IDENT(DHS biometric database).”

A report by Georgetown Law Center for Privacy and Technology estimates that about half of US adults - more than 117 million people - have their images logged in a facial recognition network of some kind.

A clash between the US and the European views on technology and security seems, however, inevitable. The EU demands compliance with the Data Protection Directive and, from May next year, the General Data Protection Regulation and, in an interview with the BBC, Ruth Boardman, at law firm Bird & Bird, pointed out that individual rights still vary from one EU state to another. Facial recognition technology is not permitted in some.

In others, she said, such as the UK, facial recognition is permitted, but “as long as appropriate safeguards are in place. For example, ensuring that anyone who believes this is in error can ask for the decision to be reviewed." Try arguing that with Border Control when you are stuck in JFK!!

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