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Critics Concerned About Privacy Issues As Biometric Scanning Increases


The iPhone 10 uses software to recognize your face. So does technology that's becoming more common in airports. That's raising concerns about privacy and the system's ability to accurately identify people of color and women. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. British Airways flight 2036 would now like to invite all passengers sitting in group one. All passengers sitting in group one, you are welcome to board at gate 80.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Orlando International Airport, Britain-bound passengers wearing Mickey Mouse T-shirts and other Disney paraphernalia are lining up for tonight's flight to London's Gatwick Airport. Gate 80 looks like any other airport departure area except for the two small gates with what look like two small boxes on posts next to them. They're cameras, actually.

SHERRY STEIN: Sir - just have to step on the yellow footprint and look at the camera. That's all.

NAYLOR: Sherry Stein is with SITA, a Geneva-based company that develops information technology for the world's airlines.

STEIN: So as a person approaches the gate, they step onto the designated footprints, which triggers the camera. We collect a photo, send that to CBP, who checks to make sure that that person's booked on the manifest and matches the photo that they already have on file. If everything matches, we open the doors and give them the OK to board. All of that happens in three to five seconds.

NAYLOR: CBP - that's Customs and Border Protection - is testing biometric scanning at a dozen or so international airports to ensure that people leaving the country are who they say they are and to prevent visa overstays. The TSA is testing similar devices at security check-in lines, says the agency's Steve Karoly.

STEVE KAROLY: I think the use of biometrics is a game changer for a lot of folks, a lot of industries, obviously the same for aviation security. It is a game changer. It will make things a little bit easier, more efficient at an airport environment.

NAYLOR: Karoly predicts it will be a few more years before biometrics are in widespread use by his agency. Critics like Harrison Rudolph of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School say the technology now isn't ready for prime time.

HARRISON RUDOLPH: This program is riddled with legal and technical problems.

NAYLOR: Among those problems, Rudolph says, is bias.

RUDOLPH: DHS doesn't seem to know whether its system will falsely reject folks at higher rates because of their race or gender. That's a serious problem.

NAYLOR: According to a report by the CAPA Centre for Aviation, face recognition software is not that good at identifying ethnic minorities. Another problem is people wearing glasses or headscarves. Rudolph says about 4 percent of travelers are wrongly rejected by the system. Another concern he has - he says privacy protections are nonexistent.

RUDOLPH: DHS hasn't issued a single rule under this program to protect Americans' privacy. So what do you just decide to do with this information tomorrow? I'm not sure. And without rules, there may be few protections for Americans' privacy.

NAYLOR: Customs and Border Protection, part of DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, says it deletes the photos taken at airport gates within 14 days. Sean Farrell, director of strategy and innovation at SITA, says travelers seemed to be comfortable with the new technology.

SEAN FARRELL: We haven't seen that privacy has been a major concern for passengers. They seem to actually embrace this technology and are willing to, you know, provide a biometric in order to get the benefit of an improved boarding process.

NAYLOR: And many travelers in Orlando we spoke with said they were happy with the process. But at least one, Arthur Quelch of Southampton, was not all that impressed.

ARTHUR QUELCH: Didn't think it made a lot of difference really - seems to have slowed things down if anything. It's - this is how it goes. I expect they'll improve it.

NAYLOR: Of course Mr. Quelch was near the end of the queue of some 280 passengers boarding the BA flight. Comfortable or not, travelers should get used to the technology. President Trump signed an executive action last year urging the government to speed up the airport use of biometric devices, and CBP hopes to have face scanners installed at all the nation's airports in four years. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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