The Telegraph – Facial recognition at airports might sound convenient for travellers – but it is putting us at risk

Big Brother Watch Team / January 5, 2024

This week, the Border Force announced plans for more “frictionless” travel thanks to an “intelligent border” run by facial recognition cameras at e-gates. It means that when you travel through UK airports, although you’ll still need to carry your passport, you won’t necessarily need to show it to officers or even passport-reading machines. While promising greater convenience, the plans might have hidden costs, introducing serious privacy threats, risks of technical failures and expenses for the taxpayer. “Frictionless”, it is not.

International travel is the most liberating activity in the world. And yet over the past 20 years, it has become punctuated by increasingly oppressive airport experiences, from pat-downs to full body scans. Then there are the dreaded passport queues – so most of us would do anything to make it all less stressful and quicker.

E-gates certainly have the potential to offer speed – though for non-British travellers, it may mean completing online forms and scanning your passport on a smartphone, something that may be more difficult for older passengers and people with disabilities. Furthermore, facial recognition technology currently suffers with inaccuracy and struggles with darker skin tones, ageing, and, of course, twins. Even so, a 1:1 biometric facial check, comparing a passport photo to the face looking at the camera, is widely accepted as a fast and secure way to verify an identity.

But behind these apparently convenient e-gates is a completely new, colossal infrastructure harvesting our digital information. Rather than showing a paper passport to a human officer like we all used to, the officer is now a machine and it already has your passport, your photos, your biometric data and potentially more of your information in a giant database. The emergence of “smart” borders is not simply a technological upgrade – it is a shift for our privacy rights.

How intrusive this will be depends on how much data the Government decides to store and for how long. But in theory, e-gates of this type open the possibility of harvesting the travel data and biometrics of the population across our lifetimes, as well as detailed records of the tens of millions of visitors to the UK each year. That database would need extremely strong technological, human, political and legal protections to be used safely and not to the disadvantage of individuals. And yet, with the casual announcement of this major change made from the Border Force to the press, such protections don’t get a mention.

How intrusive it will be also depends on whether we can choose to use e-gates. Currently, we can choose whether to use passport e-gates, and they require us to present our passport. But the difference with “frictionless” security is that the individual has less agency – your passport is effectively digitally pickpocketed by high-tech cameras that scan your face and decide whether to permit or deny your entry. Unless it is radically changed, the Government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, currently going through parliament, will significantly weaken our data rights, paving the way for a country with many more facial recognition cameras not only in airports but potentially everywhere.

Even if these “next generation” e-gates start on a consent basis, that would be highly unlikely to last. In fact, before the plans were barely uttered in public, director general of the Border Force Phil Douglas told industry bosses that the use of human passport desks will “fall away” in the next few years due to e-gates and the value of ID data to authorities. Although presented as an inevitable consequence of technological advancement, human services do not simply “fall away” in acts of nature but rather are stripped away, along with our privacy, by the latent techno-authoritarianism that underpins our time.

For most of us, our passport is the most personal and sensitive item of information we have. We tuck it away in a drawer or safe at home – it is the thing we are most anxious about losing or being stolen. But changes like this take our passports out of our hands and further out of our control.

Mixed in with hundreds of millions of other people’s passports, photos, visas and biometrics on giant databases that are searched over a hundred million times a year, there are major new risks of loss, error – and even catastrophic hacks. Just three years ago in Estonia, “the world’s most advanced digital society” – also known as “e-Estonia”, a hacker downloaded close to 300,000 personal ID photos after obtaining personal names and ID numbers from a government database.

Some of the risks of digitalising critical infrastructure are more banal. During the May bank holiday last year, a routine system upgrade to the current passport e-gates brought British airports to a standstill, causing four-hour queues.

If taking your passport out of your pocket is to be reclassified as “friction”, perhaps it is a friction we should be willing to endure. It may be safer than the steady erosion of our privacy by a growing database state.

Silkie Carlo – Big Brother Watch Director

The Telegraph – Facial recognition at airports might sound convenient for travellers – but it is putting us at risk