While facial recognition technology gets tested at U.S. airports, controversy over its legality is brewing on the public front and in hearings on Capitol Hill.

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) testified last week before a House panel regarding the government’s use of facial recognition. Congress is moving toward legislation that would curtail the use of the controversial technology or at least offer some acceptable parameters.

Speeding Through Security Lines

Surveys show air passengers love the new technology, which measures facial characteristics against a database of targets with lightning speed, thus hastening travelers through security posts and onto their departure gates. As 257 million air travelers take to the skies this summer, any assistance they can get to speed up the process is a welcome event.

According to a survey conducted online between May 6 and June 14 of some 1,955 self-identified members of frequent flyer programs, 75% of frequent flyers said they would favor the use of facial recognition to identify both foreign and domestic travelers. Nearly 87% said they would approve of the use of facial recognition to identify criminals and terrorists and protect the air travel system.

In addition, passengers cited security and check-in lines as their top annoyances. More than 71% were willing to pay a $10 fee to bypass lines, while nearly 22% would be willing embarrass themselves by singing a song to the security agent if it meant they could proceed more quickly.

Airlines are reporting that they can board jumbo jets in about a third less time by using face recognition at the gate. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection claims it has been able to stop more than 100 imposters trying to enter the country on false documents.

“These successes would not have happened — and will not continue to happen — without facial recognition," said David Fuscus, president of Xenophon Strategies which conducted the commissioned survey on behalf of NEC Corporation of America (NEC), a leading provider of biometric and artificial intelligence solutions.

The survey showed there is broad awareness and affinity for the use of facial recognition in air travel. More than 84% of those polled said they would opt-in to an "airport of the future" that used facial recognition to speed travel through the airport by reducing the need to stop and show paper documents for bag drop, check in, security, and boarding.

Nearly 78% of survey respondents indicated they were aware of facial recognition technology currently in use at airports for international travelers entering and exiting the country, while 48% knew of the biometric programs being implemented by airlines.

Privacy Concerns and Invasions

Meanwhile, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids underway and administrative policies edging into formerly untrod areas smacked with totalitarian underpinnings, many groups are concerned the technology could overstep its intended functions.

"As our society adjusts to what can seem, at least to some, like an invasive change, the aviation industry will need to handle the onboarding of this technology with care and sensitivity," noted LeClairRyan aviation attorney Mark A. Dombroff, who is an Alexandria, Virginia-based member of the national law firm and co-leader of its aviation industry practice.

Meanwhile, ICE agents are mining millions of driver's license photos for possible facial recognition matches. It is noted that some of those efforts target undocumented immigrants who have legally obtained driver's licenses.

National Public Radio tabbed researchers at Georgetown University Law Center, which obtained documents related to the searches, to learn of these less transparent uses of the technology. Federal agencies have not gotten congressional approval to use state DMV records as a massive database, the report said, and the searches often take place without state residents' awareness or approval.

News of ICE's use of facial recognition software to match through state driving records was first published by The Washington Post, which reported that in Utah, federal access was granted despite that Legislature's expressed attempt to stop such practices.

The records obtained by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology indicate ICE has requested facial recognition searches of driver’s license databases in Utah, Vermont, and Washington and may be the first glimpses into ICE’s intention for more widespread use of the controversial biometric tool.

Researchers and policy makers are concerned that facial recognition can actually be dangerous. Recent studies have found the technology both unreliable and biased, putting people at risk of false connections to a crime or investigation.

False Identifications

To that end, Dombroff cites a headline-grabbing incident that resulted in the filing of a $1 billion lawsuit in April, when a New York college student stood accused by Apple for shoplifting. The suit alleged the computer company used facial recognition to falsely accuse him of shoplifting at several Apple stores around the Northeast. Also that month, Dombroff cites a JetBlue passenger's angry Twitter post that went "viral" after she described being asked to peer into a camera prior to boarding a flight at JFK.

Against this backdrop, privacy advocates have expressed alarm at U.S. government plans to roll out facial recognition for all international passengers at the top 20 American airports by 2021. Should airport operators be concerned about being named in lawsuits over misidentifications, racial profiling?

"Through signage, social media messaging and other means, the industry needs to make abundantly clear when and how people can opt-out of the scans (and if they cannot, as with whole-terminal scanning, airports need to be upfront about it)," Dombroff wrote in a recently published article.

"Given that this technology is relatively young and is bound to have the expected bugs and errors, screeners also need to be trained to anticipate misidentifications. When they get a 'hit,' they should respond professionally, take the passenger to the side and engage in a standard ID check. After all, aggressive ‘red alert’ responses to misidentified passengers are a PR nightmare in the waiting,” the attorney concluded. “No doubt about it — they will be filmed and posted on social media within seconds of occurring, if not in real time."

You can find more information by Mark Dombroff on the topic here.