13:45 GMT +318 August 2018
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    A British Airways Airbus A380 lands at Heathrow Airport in London on July 4, 2013. British Airways is the first UK airline to take delivery of the A380 and the first long-haul flight will be to Los Angeles on September 24, 2013

    BA Use Facial Recognition, Prompt Twitterstorm Among Privacy Champions

    © AFP 2018 / JUSTIN TALLIS
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    An image of a sign at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 surfaced on social media last week and became the subject of heated debate on the web, triggering a barrage of tweets denouncing the airline company.

    David Rogers, an IoT security specialist, uploaded the picture, taken before an international flight at the London airport, to his Twitter account. The left-hand side of the sign reads: “We are trialling a new process today and welcome any feedback,” and the right-hand side said: “We’re running tests here to assess how new equipment could speed up identity checks.”

    One might wonder what exactly led to the wave of indignation on the social platform; it was the key sentence, which says “The tests are voluntary, if you don’t want to take part, just let us know.”

    Rogers tweeted that when he asked the staff how to “opt out” of the trial, they answered that it was impossible.

    Privacy advocates lashed out at the airline:

    To be fair, the company did respond to Rogers’s tweet:

    British Airways has been using facial recognition technology along with the so-called “biometric gates” on domestic flights at Heathrow’s terminal 5 since June 2017. According to the company, “biometric gates” ensure that the check-in process is quicker and easier. The know-how modernizes the existing manual process; the airline opted for computer software that will confirm a passenger’s identity at the gate, rather than a human agent.

    The website Alphr contacted British Airways for comments on the situation:

    “It is voluntary for customers to take part in any trial taking place – we are sorry that the incorrect information was relayed on this occasion,” said a representative of the company, according to Alphr. The airline explained that while it is possible to opt out of the trial upon asking a member of staff, it still wouldn’t stop your image from being captured at all.

    “At the very least, it should be made clear to passengers what is happening and how it affects their data. If facial recognition is rolled out more widely by airlines, we will need measures in place to protect citizens' privacy by making sure that access to data is proportionate and accountable, and not open to misuse,” Dr. Garfield Benjamin, from the Birmingham Centre for Cyber Security and Privacy at University of Birmingham, told Alphr.

    The Netherlands were the first to introduce a biometric automated border control in 1992, and at the time fingerprinting had been used for over a decade. As for e-passports, they have started to gain ground since 2004, becoming commonplace in the UK’s major airports.

    Tags:
    privacy, facial recognition, airport, Heathrow Airport, British Airways, United Kingdom
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