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Passengers at Boston's Logan International Airport were surfing their phones and drinking coffee, waiting to board a flight to Aruba recently when a JetBlue agent came on the loudspeaker, announcing: "Today, we do have a unique way of boarding."
On flights to the Caribbean island, JetBlue is experimenting with facial recognition software that acts as a boarding pass. The airline says it's about convenience. For the federal government, it's also about national security. But for privacy activists, it's an intrusive form of surveillance.
This is the first trial between an airline and Customs and Border Protection to use facial recognition in place of boarding passes.
"The practical side of that is you will not need to show a boarding pass and you will not need to take your passport out because your face will be essentially your boarding pass," says Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue's executive vice president of customer experience.
Michelle Moynihan, who was flying to Aruba for a wedding, says facial recognition would make her life easier.
"Typically when I travel I have my three kids with me and I travel alone with them," she says. "They're all under age 10, so flipping through multiple boarding passes on my phone, making sure I have all the kids, all the backpacks, all the suitcases can be cumbersome and frustrating."
Moynihan gets in line and right before she gets to the jet bridge, there's a camera that's about the size of a shoebox. It takes her photo and she gets a checkmark, saying she's good to go.
The whole process takes about 5 to 6 seconds.
"We're basically capturing that picture at the boarding gate and then providing it to U.S. Customs and Border protection," says Sean Farrell, who works for SITA, the company running this technology. SITA provides a lot of the IT infrastructure you see at airports.
"It's actually the U.S. government that's implementing the biometric matching system," he says.
The government uses existing databases to compare a traveler's face against all the other passengers on the flight manifest.
JetBlue is pitching this idea of facial recognition as convenience for customers. It's voluntary. But it's also part of a broader push by Customs and Border Protection to create a biometric exit system to track non-U.S. citizens leaving the country.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a lot of talk about the necessity of a biometric exit system, but the tech and computing power just wasn't good enough. Now, facial recognition experts say it's more accurate.
And Farrell sees a future — not too far off — where our faces could be our IDs.
"The end game is that in a few years' time you'll be able to go through the airport basically just using your face," he says. "If you have bags to drop off, you'll be able to use the self-service system and just have your face captured and matched. You'll then go to security, the same thing. ... And then you go to the boarding gate, and again just use your biometric."
But that worries people like Adam Schwartz, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. He says facial recognition is a uniquely invasive form of surveillance.
"We can change our bank account numbers, we even can change our names, but we cannot change our faces," Schwartz says. "And once the information is out there, it could be misused."
Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, says she's particularly concerned by the JetBlue program because of the government's role.
"The biometric databases that the government is amassing are simply another tool, and a very powerful tool of government control," she says.
Customs and Border Protection insists it will discard facial recognition photos taken of U.S. citizens at the airport, and only keep a database of non-U.S. citizens.
Back at Logan Airport, passenger Yeimy Quezada feels totally comfortable sharing her face instead of a barcode.
"Even your cellphone recognizes selfies and recognize faces, so I'm used to that technology already," she says. "And, I'm not concerned about privacy because I'm a firm believer that if you're not hiding anything, you shouldn't be afraid of anything."
Customs is running similar biometric tests at airports in Atlanta, New York and the Washington, D.C., area. The goal is to deploy facial recognition tech widely by early next year.
Asma Khalid leads WBUR's BostonomiX team, which covers the people, startups and companies driving the innovation economy. You can follow them @BostonomiX.
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