Ottawa joins worldwide push for 'passport-less' travel using facial recognition — but critics worry

The concept may save airlines money and lessen the hassle of flying, but it could create brand-new privacy threats

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In an internal briefing note this past June, a Public Safety Canada official urged his government to support a fascinating pilot project being run by Air Canada.

The airline was testing a system where passengers verified their identities at the boarding gate through facial-recognition equipment — no passport or boarding pass required.

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“Biometric technology has significant potential to help ensure the safety and security of Canadians, while increasing confidence, efficiencies and fairness for passengers,” deputy minister Shawn Tupper argued in the document, obtained by the National Post through access to information legislation.

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But Tupper was only adding to a chorus of voices promoting the idea.

Air Canada’s Vancouver project turns out to be one piece in a Canadian-backed, worldwide drive to usher in a potential new era of air travel, one where traditional physical documents would be largely replaced by facial features as a passenger’s entrée to airports and countries. The concept could save airlines money, lessen the hassle of flying — and possibly create brand-new privacy threats.

In a request for information quietly issued in October, Transport Canada asked for contractors to propose ways of implementing its Air Right Touch initiative, where passengers could move through the airport on the authority of their own facial biometrics, tied electronically to passport and other data. The International Air Transport Association — an airline trade group — is pushing a parallel idea, One ID, with so many pilot projects happening throughout the world it’s stopped keeping track of them.

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And Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is studying a new system that would use facial recognition technology (FRT) to expedite border control, too.

“They have this sort of dream — and the World Economic Forum has talked about it, too — of a kind of passport-less travel,” says Benjamin Muller, a Western University professor and leading academic expert on biometrics and borders.

The industry and government tout the idea as a way to streamline the arduous task of getting from the airport’s front door to an airplane cabin and beyond, while cutting costs, reducing airport congestion and making flying more pleasant.

“It makes everything simpler,” Louise Cole, IATA’s head of customer experience and facilitation, said from her Geneva office. “You pretty much will in the future arrive at the airport … drop your bag and walk through security and not stop until you get to your seat on the plane.”

Proponents say the biometric systems could also be a more effective way of verifying passengers’ identities for security purposes — and weeding out potentially dangerous fliers.

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But critics fret that it risks creating a new breed of privacy invasion and government surveillance.

“Suddenly now … that (facial image) is a piece of data in a digital database and by definition it is vulnerable, because all databases are vulnerable,” said Muller. “Maybe we don’t want it to be that easy for state officials to access our travel patterns in that way.”

The Right2YourFace coalition of privacy advocates is more blunt, calling FRT generally “a deeply flawed and highly invasive surveillance technology whose known social harms outweigh its potential benefits.”

The idea is not to do away with passports and other government-issued photo identification entirely. Instead, passengers would enter information from those documents in a smart-phone app ahead of time, and give their consent for the images in them to be used for facial-recognition purposes. Then, as the travellers checked bags, moved through security or boarded their flight, a camera would capture a live image of their face, convert it to a “numeric template” and compare it to a “gallery” of passport photos that had been entered into the airline, airport or customs computer systems.

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Potentially gone would be long line-ups of people waiting to have their boarding passes or passports checked by a human staff member on the way to a flight, or at customs posts after landing. (Biometric monitoring would do little, though, for another chronic bottle neck: security checkpoints where carry-on baggage and passengers are X-rayed.)

Use of such systems would be voluntary, require a passenger’s consent and comply with privacy laws, insist airlines and governments. In fact, carriers would only hold the facial data temporarily until passengers completed their flights, said IATA’s Cole.

Meanwhile, there’s a push to standardize the software used for biometric screening, so passengers wouldn’t have to download countless different applications to their phones to take advantage of the technology, she said. Transport Canada’s Air Right Touch project seems aimed at providing a comprehensive tool for passengers in this country, at least. The goal is to make facial data of consenting travellers available to airlines, airport authorities and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to smooth out the entire “journey” through an airport, says its request for information.

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CBSA, meanwhile, envisions the technology applying to travellers’ entry into a country. It’s exploring using mobile applications that would allow a passenger whose government ID is registered with the program to take a selfie of their face to prove who they are, said CBSA spokeswoman Jacqueline Roby.

In fact, she noted, the agency is already routinely using facial recognition. Self-serve kiosks at several Canadian airports take photographs now of passengers that are cross-checked with stored passport data.

Still, Western’s Muller worries about how that kind of data might ultimately be used — or misused — by the government.

He said authorities are increasingly marshalling personal details to build risk profiles, and history suggests that the more layers of data, the greater the chance that someone can be mistakenly singled out as a threat, with potentially disastrous consequences. Muller pointed to the case of Maher Arar, the Syrian-Canadian man sent by the U.S. to be tortured in Syria, based partly on information provided by Canadian police that erroneously suggested he had terrorist connections.

Airlines should move cautiously and vet their programs with the federal privacy commissioner until there is vigorous legislation regulating the use of FRT, said Daniel Konikoff of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“We must make sure that efficiency and convenience don’t come at the expense of privacy and human rights,” he said by email.

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