Face Recognition Is Being Banned—but It’s Still Everywhere

Since 2018, Delta has worked with CBP to offer international passengers flying from Atlanta the option of checking in and going through security using face recognition instead of conventional documents. In 2019, the airline used face recognition during boarding for 86 percent of its international departures from Atlanta; the proportion fell during the pandemic due to modified boarding processes, but is now at more than 60 percent of international flights and rising. Delta recently expanded the program to allow domestic passengers with TSA Precheck departing from Atlanta to progress from check-in to boarding using only their face for identity. The airline built the new system in collaboration with the Transportation Security Administration, CBP, and travel security company Pangiam, and it plans to roll it out at other airports, starting with Detroit.

Ranjan Goswami, Delta’s senior vice president of customer experience, said the new process in Atlanta makes travel more convenient for passengers and is “a blueprint for the future.” The program is voluntary, and Delta does not save or store any biometric data, Goswami says.

Shaun Moore, a Pangiam executive who joined the company when it acquired his face recognition startup Trueface earlier this year, says the debate about police use of the technology can obscure its value in other areas. “It paints the industry a little unfairly,” he says. “While talk around regulation for law enforcement use shakes out, we’ve focused on areas where there’s less concern and less risk and people are getting comfortable.”

Moore says Pangiam doesn’t offer its technology to law enforcement and that he supports regulating such uses. The Air Force also uses Pangiam’s technology to speed identity checks at base entrances, and the cryptocurrency exchange Everest uses it sign up new customers.

Finance companies are also showing interest in face recognition to speed identity checks. Incode, an identity verification startup based in San Francisco, says its face recognition checked more than 140 million identities in 2021, roughly four times as many as in the previous three years combined. The company’s customers include HSBC and Citigroup, and it recently raised $220 million in funding from investors including JP Morgan.

Caitlin Seeley George, a campaign director at nonprofit Fight for the Future, finds the spread of face recognition in airports and other areas of daily life concerning. “We need to ban all facial recognition, because the harms of this technology far outweigh any benefits,” she says.

George considers seemingly benign or careful uses of the technology dangerous because they help normalize collection of personal and biometric data that can be hacked or exploited. “The more places people see it, the more comfortable people feel,” she says. “When we do things for convenience we may not be thinking through all the repercussions.”

At the same time, George is optimistic about containing face recognition. She points to Facebook’s decision to shut its tagging system, the spread of local bans, and legislation introduced to both houses of Congress this year by a group of Democratic lawmakers and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) that would ban use of face recognition by federal agencies. Similar bills were introduced in 2020 but did not proceed to a vote.

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