Facial recognition technology is convenient. Many of us use it numerous times a day to unlock our smartphones.

Although people often access their phones with Face ID or fingerprints, many still worry about their privacy when their biometric data are used in the public space. There is a fine line between consensual identity verification and non-consensual surveillance. Here are some examples.

More airports are now using facial recognition

Delta Airlines opened the nation’s first biometric terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) in November 2018. Travelers can now use their biometric ID (a facial image in this case) for check-in, dropping off luggage, and going through TSA at ATL.

Travelers using biometric ID can enjoy faster service at ATL with the following:

  • Storing their passport information in their frequent flier profile.
  • Check-in to the flight at a kiosk and opt-in to use facial recognition in the airport.
  • A picture taken in the kiosk will be compared to the image in the database at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
  • Dropping off luggage by looking at the camera.
  • Looking at the screen with a valid boarding pass at TSA.
  • Looking at the screen when boarding the airplane.

After adopting the facial recognition technology, Delta Air Lines saved nine minutes on the ground for the boarding process. Moreover, facial recognition technology can help detect targeted criminals and terrorists at the airports.

Currently, the facial recognition technology runs at about a 98% success rate. The remaining 2%, as well as the travelers who are not comfortable with the technology, may still use their passport or driver’s license at the airport, the traditional way of ID verification.

According to CBP, the facial images of U.S. citizens scanned at the airports will be deleted shortly after confirmation. The facial images of non-U.S. citizens arriving in the States will be stored for 75 years in the database, but their photos taken at departure will be deleted after 14 days.

JFK in New York City, YVR in Vancouver, and Haneda and Narita Airports in Tokyo, among other examples, have adopted or will adopt the facial recognition technology.

Shopping malls want to use facial recognition, too

Retail stores and shopping malls also want to provide a different kind of experience for customers with facial recognition technology, including:

  • Recognizing shoppers’ names when they enter the store.
  • Recording what they buy.
  • Sending them promotions.
  • Detecting shoppers’ paths of travel in the property.
  • Determining traffic patterns.
  • Monitoring worker performance.
  • Watching shoppers’ reactions to displays.

Privacy concerns arise about using facial recognition technology in public space. Human rights groups are voicing their concerns about using surveillance cameras to monitor people’s daily activities. In some extreme cases in China, for instance, people’s emotions are also analyzed.

Restaurants try facial recognition to improve customer service

Outback Steakhouse rolled out a pilot program last month in selected stores, in which cameras are stored in the lobby area, capturing the interactions among the hosts, servers, and customers. The technology enables the restaurants to:

  • Track long wait times.
  • Monitor the cleanliness of the lobby.
  • Record the number of customers who leave without being seated or greeted.
  • Notify the managers or staff before customers get angry.

According to a CNBC report, the data captured by the cameras will be stored for 30 days, and no personal identification information is tracked and recorded. Outback plans to expand the program to the dining rooms, kitchens, and curbside pickup areas as well.

The trade-off between convenience/efficiency and privacy

If consumers’ biometric data is not tracked or at least stored in a secure place, consumers may feel more inclined to accept facial recognition because of convenience and efficiency. It is quite different, however, when consumers are being watched through surveillance cameras and analyzed as objects.

While I urge legislators to regulate the usage of any technology that utilizes consumers’ biometric data, I would like to hear your thoughts about technology.

In what cases, or to what extent, do you allow a business or agency to collect your biometric data? Or, on the contrary, on what occasions do you want to say no to such practice?