Skip to content

About Face: Facial Recognition & Border Security

The recently launched iPhone X uses facial recognition technology to unlock the phone rather than fingerprint scanners or the comparatively old-fashioned passcode, ostensibly to make the phone more secure. As evidenced by the long lines on launch day and the robust secondary market, many consumers seem to have a fairly blasé attitude towards the fact that Apple will now have unlimited access to the wealth of biometric data provided through facial recognition and are willing to cut the corporation a lot of slack when it comes to the trade-off between privacy and convenience. Apple is not the only one deploying facial recognition technology on a large scale, though: some airports have begun installing cameras that force passengers to use their faces as boarding passes, while others are experimenting with using a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cameras instead of security checkpoints. It seems likely that these technologies will continue to roll out across airports, which now can be considered part of a country’s national border, where travelers enter and exit. In the eternal debate between security and personal liberty, the desire for security seems to be winning in this regard, and biometric facial scanners are likely to become a permanent part of border security solutions.

Image courtesy of JESHOOTS, © 2017.

Apple has not shared the proprietary process behind their face scanning system, but an outline of the basic process is readily available online: Face ID projects more than 30,000 dots over the face in order to create a “map” and uses a bionic chip to support the machine learning mechanism that will recognize changes in appearance, like putting on glasses or growing facial hair. According to Apple, Face ID is extremely secure, with the possibility that someone else could successfully unlock an iPhone X being just one in one million, compared to one in 50,000 for Touch ID. At this point, Apple has been adamant that they do not store or send any biometric information and that they are dedicated to protecting consumer privacy, something Apple CEO Tim Cook made clear in 2016 when the FBI sought Apple’s assistance in breaking into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Given Apple’s recent purchase of a Emotient, Inc., an artificial intelligence startup that reads expressions and emotions, as well as the fact that app developers will have access to some of the facial recognition data, it seems possible that soon Face ID data will be used for more than just detecting whether or not the person wearing sunglasses is indeed the owner of the phone.

Biometric data collected at airports, on the other hand, is undoubtedly being saved and stored for later use—after all, that is one of the primary reasons to implement them along a border. They are certainly not as advanced as Apple’s Face ID, which may soon incorporate emotion-reading technology from Emotient, but work by matching photos taken on the spot with image data retrieved from passports in order to verify a passenger’s identity. One nice perk for travelers: this process takes less than 15 seconds, meaning dramatically reduced wait times at immigration. It also means passports and boarding passes may eventually become obsolete, as your face may one day be all you need to get through an airport and on to a plane.

Dubai, in particular, has already enacted a plan for an innovative facial recognition system that will be installed in the summer of 2018— a tunnel-shaped virtual aquarium lined with 80 cameras that scan faces and irises as passengers walk through—and by the end of the tunnel they have either cleared security or airport officials have been alerted to a potential threat. And that, of course, is the primary purpose of these biometric systems: border security, not easing lines at immigration or speeding up the boarding process. After the September 11 attacks, when concerns over airport security were high, facial recognition technology was not advanced enough to make such a process feasible. As of October 2017, however, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has announced that eight U.S. international airports are currently participating in the implementation of a biometric exit system, in addition to a handful of airports in Japan and France. In the CBP trial program, photographs taken of travelers at the terminal are matched with government databases in order to confirm identity and enhance security, and photos of U.S. citizens will be deleted after fourteen days—though non-U.S. citizens will remain in a database. Through this system, called Biometric Exit, CBP will be able to quickly identify if a traveler has entered the country illegally, or if a visa holder has overstayed the length of their visit.

The privacy concerns from Biometric Exit are a lot more worrisome than privacy concerns that Apple could scan a user’s emotions to support highly targeted advertising. For one, once a passenger’s photo has been taken at the gate, there is no reason why CBP could not run it against FBI databases or state law enforcement databases in addition to simply verifying identity. This would turn going to an airport into an opportunity for a search not only for international criminals already flagged by INTERPOL or sitting on a terrorist watchlist, but for anyone who has committed even a minor, non-violent crime and who appears on a local police list.  Meaning, if you skipped out on a drunk in public charge after a wild weekend in Las Vegas, it could catch up to you next time you try to board a plane and become a reason to detain you. Additionally, there is the possibility of misuse that comes with a massive database of biometric data from both citizens and non-citizens, something many countries, including the United Kingdom, are also struggling with as they attempt to enhance security measures.

As machine learning advances and becomes more commonplace and affordable—even some vending machines use this technology now—more and more governments and airports are likely to adopt this technology. This, coupled with a generally uncaring attitude towards biometric privacy from the general public makes it seemingly inevitable that crossing a national border will one day necessitate a face scan. Whether or not this will indeed make countries more secure remains to be seen, but it is clear that there will be a yet another reduction in individual liberty in favor of an unproven national security measure.


Michelle Bovée

Michelle Bovee is a Market Intelligence manager at MAGNA Global, where she focuses on global advertising revenues and media cost trends, particularly in Western and Northern Europe. She graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's degree in International Relations in 2013 and is currently living in New York City. You can connect with her on Twitter @boveemc.
Posted in

Leave a Comment