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Don’t Sacrifice Privacy on the Altar of Convenience

Matthew Feeney

We all hate long lines, whether we’re at train stations,
airports, or grocery stores. Researchers and governments are hard
at work to ease frustrating line congestion via facial recognition
technology. Facial scanners may reduce time spent standing in
boring lines, but they also threaten our privacy, which we
shouldn’t sacrifice on the altar of convenience.

In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
is taking steps to implement facial scanning systems at airports.
Facial scan trials are already underway in six
airports, with more deployments planned by early next year at
“high-volume”international airports. The
scanners are part of a biometric entry-exit plan that aims in part
to confirm the identity of travelers leaving the U.S.

Two airlines—Delta and JetBlue—allow travelers to
use facial scanners at select airports. From the Associated
Press
:

DHS officials hope to defray costs through partnerships with
airlines that are incorporating biometrics to boost efficiencies.
Two airlines in the pilot program—Delta and
JetBlue—tout identity-verification technology’s
convenience for other ends: Delta for speeding baggage handling,
JetBlue for eliminating boarding passes. Both carriers say they
will not retain customers’ face scan files.

In their privacy impact
assessment
for the facial scanning scheme DHS bluntly states,
“the only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not
subject to collection of biometric information when traveling
internationally is to refrain from traveling.” The same
assessment also points out that Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
can share facial recognition information with state, local, and
federal agencies.

Shorter lines, no ticket
turnstiles, and stores without checkouts sound great, but they come
at a significant cost when they rely on facial
recognition.

Although CBP does mention that all newly captured photos will be
deleted after 14 days it’s worth keeping in mind that CBP
could extend this time period in the wake of a terrorist attack or
other emergency

In the United Kingdom,
government-backed facial
recognition technology
could be used to ease congestion at
London Underground stations. The goal is for participating
passengers to simply walk by cameras rather than wait at cumbersome
ticket turnstiles. The technology, built by Bristol Robotics
Laboratory, is reportedly accurate enough to distinguish between
identical twins. According to Bristol Robotics Laboratory’s
Professor Lyndon Smith, the technology could be commercially
available in 2019.

The United Kingdom is one of the most surveilled countries in
the developed world, and the data collected as part of this
proposed scheme will be in the hands of Transport for London, a
local government body. We shouldn’t be surprised if London
Underground’s facial recognition data finds its way into the
hands of law enforcement.

Such data sharing between Transport for London and London police
would hardly be unprecedented. A 2014 report from London’s
Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) stated that Transport for London
sends MPS license plate data for national security purposes:

The Mayor’s Crime Manifesto, published in April 2012, made a
commitment to make Transport for London Automatic Number Plate
Recognition data available to the Metropolitan Police Service for
the purposes of preventing and detecting crime.

[Transport for London] collects [Automatic Number Plate
Recognition] data from the central London Congestion Charging Zone
and the London-wide Low Emission Zone camera networks and processes
it for the purpose of enforcement and traffic monitoring. This data
is already transferred to the MPS for the purposes of National
Security.

In May 2015, the London mayor announced that MPS had
access to license plate data for criminal—not only national
security—investigations:

The Mayor, Boris Johnson, has more than doubled the number of
high-tech cameras used by the Police (MPS) to help identify
criminals and bring them to justice. Around 2,300 Automatic Number
Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras are now in use for policing
purposes in London after the MPS were granted access to 1,300
Transport for London cameras which were developed to enforce the
Congestion Charge Zone and the Low Emission Zone. Each camera takes
a digital reading of passing traffic, allowing speedy
identification and collecting real-time data on the precise
whereabouts of stolen cars or vehicles involved in crime. This
vital information enables the police to detect more criminals, and
deter and disrupt criminality on London’s streets. The move to
incorporate Transport for London’s ANPR cameras into the Met’s
network was one of the Mayor’s 2012 Manifesto pledges and part of
his drive to bear down on crime in the capital.

A similar access policy will no doubt be in place once the
London Underground’s facial recognition system is up and
running.

Chinese companies are developing facial recognition technology
that can not only identify people but may one day be able to
predict crimes. A
Singaporean company, Xjera Labs, has built surveillance technology that can
identify vehicles as well
as people
. It also allows users to search CCTV footage for
particular activity, such as a street fight.
Xjera Labs’ technology is used by police in Singapore as well
as Chinese schools
. This may strike some as creepy and
intrusive, but many people see benefits. Chinese researchers have
built ATMs that use facial
recognition to determine identity. Thanks to facial recognition,
one cafe owned by the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba does not need self-checkout
kiosks
, let alone human check-out assistance.

These innovations from the United Kingdom and China or others
like them will find their way to the United States, where around
half of adults are already part of a facial
recognition network.

Shorter lines, no ticket turnstiles, and stores without
checkouts sound great, but they come at a significant cost when
they rely on facial recognition.

The increased use of facial recognition will enable law
enforcement to more easily track your lawful movements. When merged
with CCTV, body camera, and drone technology facial recognition
will allow law enforcement to identify law abiding citizens. The
widespread use of facial recognition will open the door for
increased tracking and surveillance as well as the stifling of
First Amendment-protected activities.

We shouldn’t think of facial recognition as a necessarily
nefarious technology. It would be great to live in a world where
there are fewer airport and shopping lines and our privacy is
protected. And we could, provided that lawmakers take steps to
limit the facial recognition data government collect and citizens
don’t hurry to sacrifice their privacy for convenience.

Matthew
Feeney
is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.