At Charlotte and Raleigh airports, your face may soon become your passport

Facial recognition, a controversial technology that identifies people by using a camera to scan their faces, will likely be in place at the Charlotte and Raleigh airports sometime next year.

A federal customs official says that technology will help speed boarding and deter passport fraud on international flights in and out of North Carolina — just as it has in 17 other large airports across the nation.

“Our motivation is to make sure that bad people who do bad things don’t enter the country,” says Barry Chastain, the U.S. Custom and Border Protection official who oversees North Carolina.

But privacy advocates raise concerns that the technology could be misused.

“When you aggregate that data, it becomes a mass surveillance tracking device that could change the nature of society,” says Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the ACLU who researches and writes about technology-related privacy issues.

Here’s how it would work:

At the gates for departing international flights — and at the airport customs stations for people arriving in the country — cameras would take photographs of travelers and download the images into a computer system. Then the images would be compared electronically to those already in a federal database — many of which are taken from passports. Within seconds, the system would allow officials to verify a traveler’s identity.

People who do not want to to have their photos taken would have an opportunity to opt out. Those travelers would be vetted by the more traditional means now used at the airports.

Chastain said he would like to see the new system in place at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in time for the Republican National Convention, which will take place in Charlotte starting on Aug. 24, 2020. Chastain said he also hopes the technology will be introduced to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport sometime next year, but he did not specify a target date.

“That would be an attainable goal and would be a realistic goal,” Chastain said.

Invasive or protective?

Privacy advocates have raised a host of concerns about the technology.

They point, among other things, to a 2017 report by Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Privacy and Technology, which raises questions about the accuracy of facial recognition technology and notes that Congress has never clearly authorized the collection of biometric information from America citizens at the border.

Stanley argues that the manual system that has been in place for years works well, and he questions why the government would welcome an invasive technology for “superficial reasons.”

“There’s a disproportion between the power and sweep of this technology, and the tiny conveniences and efficiencies that they can get from this,” he said.

Federal officials, however, say that the technology has accurately identified travelers in the overwhelming majority of cases so far. And they maintain that it will make travel more convenient and more secure.

Chastain notes that some impostors take legitimate passports belonging to others and superimpose their own photos to them. Facial recognition technology can detect that kind of fraud, he said.

“It’s going to tell me who you truly are,” he said.

Travelers get face scans.jpg
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations, officers take biometric photos of passengers prior to boarding a flight at Houston International Airport on February 12, 2018. Photographer: Donna Burton Donna Burton U.S. Customs and Border Protection

To bring the changes to the Charlotte airport, Chastain said, federal officials will work primarily with airport officials, and with American Airlines and Lufthansa, which operate the vast majority of international flights out of Charlotte.

Last year, American Airlines began testing a facial recognition program for some international flights at Los Angeles International Airport. An airline spokesman said that American has not yet expanded the program beyond Los Angeles.

In a statement emailed to the newspaper, Charlotte-Douglas Chief Operating Officer Jack Christine wrote: “We can share that the Airport is exploring the idea of Facial Recognition Technology and are working closely with Customs and Border Protection as it looks into the possibility of bringing it to CLT.”

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Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter for the Observer, has examined corruption in state prisons, the mistreatment of injured poultry workers and many other subjects. His stories have won dozens of state and national awards. He was a key member of two reporting teams that were named Pulitzer finalists.