What You Need to Know About Biometric Privacy
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Technology is quickly changing travel. Already, some passengers are looking into a facial-ID camera instead of presenting a document to board a plane. Major airlines and government agencies are among those embracing new facial-recognition technology and fingerprint scans to verify the identity of passengers.
Known as biometrics, the system is designed to make the boarding process easier and swifter. American, Delta, Jet Blue, British Airways and Lufthansa have all implemented the procedure into some of their international operations. The US Department of Homeland Security and the private firm CLEAR are embracing this technology as well.
Both the airlines and the government say the images collected are not stored and that these images immediately disappear, but this new technological revolution is still raising concerns about the security of personal information and the possibility that it could be hacked.
Potential for Abuse
Passenger-rights advocates acknowledge biometric screening adds convenience to the often hectic and hassle-filled travel experience.
“I personally use these services, which use eye scans and fingerprints for ID’ing,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org. He acknowledges, “There is utility in giving up some privacy to speed and removing some of the personal hassles of air travel, as with PreCheck, Global Entry and CLEAR services.”
Although Hudson appreciates the ease of such services, he is among many questioning the accuracy of facial-recognition systems and the potential for abuse.
“There is a difference by orders of magnitude between giving up some of your biometric data to a trusted and regulated party and allowing private or government entities to capture or steal it or misuse it without your informed consent or knowledge,” said Hudson.
“Constitutional rights prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure as well as privacy laws will, in my view, need to be strengthened to prevent this. Otherwise personal privacy may largely vanish,” Hudson said.
The airlines and government agencies employing this technology insist the data collected is not being stored. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) emphasizes it does not use the technology to surveil passengers.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the agency has issued privacy-impact assessments and has limited the amount of personal information used in its operations.
“CBP uses strong encryption to transfer the data between the camera, the cloud-based matching service, and CBP systems, as well as for PII [personally identifiable information] at rest,” said the spokesperson.
“Only authorized CBP personnel and authorized representatives of approved CBP partners will have access to the collection device, and only CBP staff and cloud-service provider personnel may have access to the cloud database.”
Despite reassurances, one aviation security expert has his reservations.
“I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on cybersecurity and basically anything that is online at some point is hackable,” said Jeff Price, owner of Leading Edge Strategies and a former US intelligence officer.
Although there is no evidence to indicate any breach like this has occurred, Price recommends that flyers should always monitor their credit reports, and he recommends avoiding biometric screenings. (Many airlines allow passengers to opt out.)
The TSA stresses that “participation in the test of biometrics technology is voluntary. Passengers may notify a TSA officer if they do not wish to participate and will go through the standard ID verification process.” Price endorses that option, though this screening system may soon be standard and mandatory.
According to the CPB spokesperson, the agency is “working towards full implementation of biometric exit in the air environment within the next four years to account for over 97 percent of departing commercial air travelers from the United States.”
Another concern is misidentification.
So far, more than 20.3 million travelers have been processed by CBP using facial recognition at air-entry, air-exit and pre-clearance locations, as of June 4, 2019. CBP maintains a match rate of more than 97%, according to a spokesperson.
The agency also says its officers “successfully intercepted six impostors who were denied admission to the United States at airports and identified 135 impostors on arrival in the land pedestrian environment.” (Land pedestrian environment is government speak for a border/port of entry that’s not an airport.)
The use of this technology is expanding. In addition to facial recognition and fingerprint technology, the TSA is planning to test iris scans.
Meanwhile, the government, airlines and private providers like CLEAR say their credibility depends on cybersecurity and maintaining privacy. “It’s really important that people know we will not sell or share their data,” said Caryn Seidman-Becker, CEO of CLEAR, in a Jan. 22, 2019, Talking Points podcast with The Points Guy.
For more, check out our video of TPG speaking with the CEO of CLEAR.
For the latest travel news, deals and points and miles tips please subscribe to The Points Guy daily email newsletter.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees