You can opt out of facial recognition at the airport... maybe

Depending on which airports you tend to use frequently, you may have already encountered the facial recognition scanners that TSA is employing as a replacement for waiting in line to have your passport or other documentation examined. If you haven’t seen them yet (assuming you fly at all) you will sooner or later. They plan to have them in pretty much every airport in the country over the next couple of years.

But what if you don’t want to have your face scanned and recorded in the government’s database? There’s good news and bad news on that front and I’ll give it to you in reverse order. The bad news is that if you have a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID, your face is probably already in an image database that the government can access if it really needs to. But let’s pretend that’s not the case for a moment. The good news is that you can avoid using the face scanner if you really want to. Or at least that’s what Allie Funk at Wired found out, but they certainly don’t go out of their way to let you know about this option.

To figure out how to do so, I had to leave the boarding line, speak with a Delta representative at their information desk, get back in line, then request a passport scan when it was my turn to board. Federal agencies and airlines claim that facial recognition is an opt-out system, but my recent experience suggests they are incentivizing travelers to have their faces scanned—and disincentivizing them to sidestep the tech—by not clearly communicating alternative options. Last year, a Delta customer service representative reported that only 2 percent of customers opt out of facial-recognition. It’s easy to see why.

As I watched traveler after traveler stand in front of a facial scanner before boarding our flight, I had an eerie vision of a new privacy-invasive status quo. With our faces becoming yet another form of data to be collected, stored, and used, it seems we’re sleepwalking toward a hyper-surveilled environment, mollified by assurances that the process is undertaken in the name of security and convenience. I began to wonder: Will we only wake up once we no longer have the choice to opt out?

Funk is clearly one of those travelers who obsess over how often the government is capturing their image and any other data when they go out in public. I tend not to stress out much over it, but from the mountains of feedback we receive on the subject, clearly, a lot of people are. But if you’re going to object to the use of this technology at airports, what are the actual pros and cons?

If you can get past the idea that Uncle Sam is storing your pictures for some nefarious purpose, the lines at the airports where these scanners are being operated are reportedly as much as half as short, with significantly decreased wait times. Also, the government has a list of known individuals on the no-fly list and this system may make it even less likely that you’ll wind up in row 23 sitting next to a guy with a bomb in his underwear… at least in theory. These are both bonuses in my book.

That’s not to say there are no drawbacks. Aside from concerns about DHS tracking your every movement, the technology is still rather dodgy. That’s a subject we’ve covered here many times and Funk brings it up again in the linked article. Most of the software is pretty good at recognizing white males, but for some reason, the error rates go up exponentially for women and persons of color. (If you happen to be a woman of color you might as well prepare to be pulled from the line as the software will likely identify you as Saddam Hussein. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but probably not by all that much.)

I don’t know if the software the TSA is using is any better than Amazon’s Rekognition, but we can hopefully assume that it’s being worked on and will improve through longer periods of testing and use in the field. False positives are a definite concern, but if it starts catching bad guys before they get to do bad things, is it really that much of a price to pay?

As for your digital privacy in a digital world, as I said above, I would be shocked beyond belief if there aren’t already multiple government image libraries containing the pictures of nearly everyone with a valid ID card. And even if they say they aren’t sharing them, I’d be equally shocked if there weren’t provisions in place to do so in an emergency. Unless you’re going to go totally off the grid and move into a Ted Kaczynski type of cabin on a mountain, the surveillance state that Funk is worried about isn’t looking like it’s just an inevitability. It’s probably already here.