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Flying after coronavirus is set to involve far less personal contact with airline staff. Not everyone agrees that’s a good thing.
Struggling airlines are betting on touchless technology to convince passengers that plane travel is safe.
“We’ve seen a huge move to contactless travel; it’s eight years’ moves in the space of a few months,” Qantas boss Alan Joyce said this week. “We think that is a change that we’ll see forever.”
In German airports, facial recognition technology now lets passengers move through hubs using their faces rather than their boarding passes. Star Alliance, which partnered with Lufthansa to introduce biometric operations at Munich and Frankfurt am Main airports, says the identification process even works for people wearing face masks.
Elsewhere, technology developments include mobile phone-operated self-service check-ins, with both Emirates and Star Alliance pointing to the safety benefits as the coronavirus continues to haunt personal interactions.
But digital rights campaigners say they’re concerned the pandemic has opened the door to a culture change that isn’t proportionate and could be detrimental, if passengers get used to handing over more personal data and that data isn’t protected.
Some are even accusing the industry of being disingenuous with its messaging. “Airports have been hugely keen to roll this stuff out for a long time. It’s not a new thing that the industry has been pushing,” said Daniel Leufer, Europe policy analyst at Access Now, a digital rights NGO.
Arguing that profits in the biometrics industry have “surged” during the pandemic, Leufer said that “one of the most common things that has been pushed is this touchless angle. You have panels of people talking about the amazing business opportunities presented by the pandemic on the further adoption of biometrics.”
But Leufer says the health-related benefits being touted don’t justify the rollouts. “You have to ask, how much of that infection is being spread through touch? I think there’s been doubt cast on that. The risk can be mitigated in other ways without having to install surveillance infrastructure,” he said.
Despite initial alarm over surface transmission at the start of the pandemic, health experts now acknowledge there is “limited evidence” of the coronavirus being passed on via surfaces, as a World Health Organization spokesperson told Nature in January.
The problem is that scientists can’t categorically rule it out — and for most travelers a cycle of reduced contact, hand washing and sanitizing remains the only tractable protection alongside wearing a face mask.
While Star Alliance describes touchless technology as an “important safety feature in times of COVID,” it also observes a need to increase “traveler confidence.”
Viktor Schlüter from German data protection group Digitale Freiheit said the developments at airports don’t trigger automatic privacy concerns, but he warned that hubs should be careful in how they deploy the technology.
There’s no infringement on people’s privacy rights if tools are used for verification to confirm the physical face matches the one in an ID document as opposed to identification, meaning finding an unknown person in a crowd. “It is really important that they are installed in a GDPR compliant way,” Schlüter said in reference to the EU’s data protection rules.
He urged operators to ensure that passengers can genuinely opt out of the data processing, pointing to internet cookie banners as a bad example of opt-out practice. “Whereas in theory, there’s some sort of consent, in actual life, it’s not actually a choice because one thing is 1,000 times more convenient than the other,” he said.
Leufer warned broader use of biometric technology could lead to “function creep,” with instruments gradually used for more than their intended purpose.
“A big worry we have is even if someone rolls out the best privacy-preserving state of the art authentication system, it’s still a huge step towards adding other layers on top of it and just creates a real danger of things accelerating,” he said.
In October, France’s privacy watchdog said the use of facial recognition for identity checks at airports “is not insignificant” for the rights and freedoms of the individual. The regulator also noted it had received a flurry of messages from industry asking for support to introduce technology that complies with privacy laws.
Star Alliance said in a statement that it deletes its “gallery of the day” of the images of people who have used the service after a customer’s journey is concluded and that no personal information remains in its system.
Richard Carret, marketing and communications director at the company, said that “data privacy regulations have been incorporated into the design of the system” and that when enrolling, “passengers are able to manage consent on a granular level.”
“The Star Alliance Biometrics database is encrypted, pictures of enrolled customers are not exposed to airports or airlines, they are converted into a unique biometric template which is being used for matching,” he said.
Two birds, one stone
While the new technology may help calm nerves about coronavirus infection risk, it also helps airports manage a problem that predates the pandemic: long queues.
Carret said the first weeks of using facial recognition technology in Germany brought faster processing times, leading to “a better flow of passengers through checkpoints.”
That’s even more essential for airports amid the ongoing pandemic, thanks to the headache of enforcing social distancing measures.
A study by air traffic managers Eurocontrol in September found that to process the same number of passengers while ensuring social distancing, hubs would need 50 percent more space at check-in, 100 percent more space at security control and up to 50 percent more space at boarding gates.
Of course, another effect of the pandemic is that air passenger travel isn’t expected to return to pre-crisis levels until 2025, by which time — it’s hoped — social distancing measures will be long gone.
But Leufer predicts the digital legacy will remain a long-term mainstay, due to what he described as a “rampant techno-fetishism” accompanying the pandemic.
“Governments, airports, different authorities are kind of grasping that quick-fix, fancy, flashy technical solutions. Then they can look like they’re doing something,” he said.
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