Your Airline Will See You Now

4:25 minutes

Delta Air Line’s new facial recognition machines. Credit: Delta Air Lines

Public opinion of airlines is at an all-time low. Every day seems to bring a new story of passenger misfortune. To prove that it’s still customer-focused, Delta Air Lines is piloting a new program it says will speed things up when you drop off your bag at the airport. Instead of waiting in a typical bag check line, customers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will soon be able to self-check their bags at special kiosks, one of which will include facial recognition technology. When a passenger swipes their passport at that kiosk, a camera will scan their face to confirm their identity.

[Meet the CSI-esque team for birds that get struck by airplanes.]

The airline says the program facilitates convenience, but Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warns of a slippery slope: At what point does consumer-friendly facial recognition technology turn into airport surveillance? She joins Ira to discuss the good and the bad of Delta’s new facial recognition pilot program.

Segment Guests

Jennifer Lynch

Jennifer Lynch is the Surveillance Litigation Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Segment Transcript

SPEAKER 1: Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.


SPEAKER 1: Because every story has a flip side. Now public opinion of airlines is, as you know, is probably at an all-time low. Every day seems to bring a new story of passenger misfortune. To prove it’s still customer focused, though, Delta is trying out a new idea.

Instead of waiting in line for an agent, customers will be able to scan their passports at a special Delta kiosk, and a camera, right there at the kiosk, is going to scan your face to confirm your identity. So convenient. How could that go wrong?

Joining me to discuss the good and bad of Delta’s new facial recognition program is Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Jennifer, welcome to Science Friday.

JENNIFER LYNCH: Thanks for having me on the show.

SPEAKER 1: First of all, let’s talk about this. So Delta is spinning this as a good thing. Tell us what you see as the upside to this type of program.

JENNIFER LYNCH: Well, I think everybody wants to save time in the travel process. I mean, airport travel has become pretty much miserable. So I think what Delta is trying to do is speed its customers along by using a face verification service to let you track your package, or excuse me, track your luggage a little bit faster.

So it appears to be a system that just takes a picture of you one time, and compares that picture against your passport. It doesn’t appear like it’s storing the data or the photograph. So that’s a pretty good use of face recognition as a verification process.

SPEAKER 1: So it’s not so much the facial recognition, as you say. It’s the facial verification. It’s not– is it handing this out to other organizations or officials, or whatever?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Yeah, from what Delta has said about it, it appears that it’s just an internal service that Delta is offering. And it is just a one-to-one verification process. They’re not building a huge database of all travelers’ photos at this point.

SPEAKER 1: So I guess that could be the bad thing, if it’s sort of doing that kind of surveillance?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Well, sure. That definitely could be the bad thing, if Delta starts building out a big database that’s travelers’ photos. That’s when we start to get concerned.

SPEAKER 1: Are you concerned about what a private company would do with our data if it decides to change its terms of service? Like Delta? And save the images?

JENNIFER LYNCH: Yeah, I’m definitely concerned about that. We’ve seen a lot of private companies that are interested in face recognition recently, both for verification purposes, like Delta, and for real-time identification, like retail stores and sports stadiums.

But the data that a company uses face scans, like where you were on a given date and time, to be aggregated and sold to banks and insurance companies and used to determine your creditworthiness or your insurance risk. And it could also be shared with law enforcement.

SPEAKER 1: I even know where you are, any time you are traveling.

JENNIFER LYNCH: It’s true. It’s true.

SPEAKER 1: Now Delta made this announcement the same week that the Customs Border Patrol has said that it’s going to expand its use of facial recognition at airports. Is this a trend we should be worried about?

JENNIFER LYNCH: It does appear to be a trend. And I do think that we should be worried about it. Customs and Border Protection has said that it wants to use face recognition to track people, including US citizens, as they move through airports. And that’s from security to airport lounges to the boarding gates.

But it’s going to need to rely on private partners, like Delta and the airlines, to get this kind of data. One thing we do know is that data is never collected in a vacuum. Customs and Border Protection will likely share this kind of data, the face recognition data and where you were on a given date and time, with the FBI and other law enforcement. And that could subject innocent people to unnecessary surveillance and potentially even criminal suspicion.

SPEAKER 1: Jennifer, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.


SPEAKER 1: Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We’re going to take a break. Up next, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decides not to renew a key federal commission that’s setting scientific standards for forensic science. What that means for law enforcement, defendants, and justice writ large. That’s what we’ll talk about. You can join us at 844-742-8255 or tweet us at SciFri. We’ll be right back after this break.

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