Tech & Science

‘The future of air travel’: Facial recognition might make airports a breeze — at a cost

The trial of facial recognition technology at Canada’s airports is a step toward the country’s “future of air travel,” aviation experts say, but the cost of privacy may come at a cost to some travelers. can be more than acceptable.

Air Canada on Tuesday rolled out a new voluntary digital ID option for some passengers transiting Vancouver International Airport and visiting a lounge at Toronto’s Pearson International in what is believed to be the first Canadian airline to do so. announced that there will be

This process allows travelers to board at the gate or enter lounges without a physical ID such as a passport or driver’s license. Instead, users upload their headshots and passport scans to the Air Her Canada app. This app leaves data called “faceprints”.

An Air Canada handout photo of a traveler going through a pilot’s facial recognition technology before boarding.

CNW Group/Air Canada

Travelers will have to give their consent again each time they use their stored photo for a new trip, the airline said in a statement to Global News.

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Facial recognition data is stored on Air Canada’s servers for up to 36 hours after flight departure. Before this information is deleted, the airline says it will only be shared with partners who provide digital ID technology.

While it’s a modest pilot to start with, Air Canada has indicated hopes to expand the initiative to other airports in the future.

John Gladek, an aviation expert at McGill University, said Air Canada is “catching up” when it comes to facial recognition technology.

Since last fall, more than a dozen US airports have used such technology, he told Global News. Germany’s Frankfurt Airport announced earlier this month that it would introduce biometrics at each stage of the boarding process this year.

Nexus travelers who regularly cross the Canadian-US border are already providing biometric data to streamline border crossings, Gradek adds.

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The implementation of facial recognition is still in its infancy, but airports and airlines are currently testing the technology in hopes of creating “automated airport processes,” Gladek said.

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He imagines being at the airport 20 minutes before the flight departs, instead of 3 hours. He can go through baggage check-in, security, and boarding without ever taking his passport or other ID out of his bag, and he can sit in his seat without speaking to many people.

A “trusted traveler” might even skip security queues one day, he imagines. “There is a vision. Seamless, touchless.

“This is the future. We are watching the future of air travel evolve.”

Consider Privacy Concerns

Whether such a future becomes a reality will depend heavily on how privacy issues around biometric data are handled and how accustomed travelers are to airports’ “intrusive” technology, he said. Gradek says.

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Ann Cavoukian, the former privacy commissioner for Ontario, told Global News how Air Canada implements its face-tracking software is important to whether the data is handled properly.

If the data is used in a one-to-one framework, meaning that one facial image is compared to your own face only at the airport, it’s likely in-flight, explains Cavoukian.

Instead, if the approach is one-to-many (comparing a single facial image with thousands of other facial images in the airport), the technique is “problematic” and prone to “false positives”. more likely to generate matches. , she says.

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Global News reached out to Air Canada to confirm the framework the airline is using for its digital ID pilot, but did not receive a response by publication time.

While there may be advantages to providing personal information for quick airport transfers, Cavoukian urges Canadians to scrutinize new initiatives when it comes to privacy.

We recommend that you ensure that no third-party companies have access to your data after first use, and then delete the information in a time-sensitive manner.

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“With all this new technology coming out, a lot of people are saying, ‘Well, we’re losing a little bit of our privacy.’ What’s the big deal? It can be a big deal.” says Cavoukian.

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“We have seen so many cases of identity theft and other compromises where your information is used for nefarious purposes and come back to hurt you.”

Do Canadians exchange data to facilitate boarding?

Last year was a tough year for many Canadian travelers rushing back to travel internationally and across borders after years of COVID-19 restrictions.

At various points in 2022, significant delays, flight cancellations and lost baggage have become common sights. This is because severe weather has exacerbated labor shortages at airports and airlines.

Frédéric Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said a shortage of staff to meet customer demand is likely behind the push for more automation.

The more time travelers have to talk to live human beings at airports, such as flight attendants, security guards and customs officials, the longer it takes to board a plane, he says.

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Dimanche notes that those willing to adopt facial recognition technology may have an edge over others in the early stages of adoption. Examples of this can already be seen in Europe’s Schengen area, he says. There are people here who have permission to get through immigration booths faster than non-European travelers.

“You’re already seeing differences in travelers, which can lead to differences in treatment,” he says.

Especially given last year’s travel headaches, Gradek expects biometric ID options to become popular among Canadians as the airline industry looks to reduce the amount of time travelers spend in the maze.

“In the last eight months, we’ve learned that technology can be a way to reduce all anxiety, especially at airports,” he says.

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“The benefits… come to airlines, airports and travelers. And that’s a good thing.”

Technical problems could cause further delays, experts warn

Dimanche agrees with Gradek that biometrics are the “way of the future” for air travel, but points out that there are many barriers to becoming a reality.

There is still no standardized system for airports and airlines around the world to synchronize the identification process.

Meanwhile, Canadians are becoming more and more familiar with facial recognition technology, Dimanche said, noting that many consumers are already using the technology to unlock their iPhones.

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But not all Canadians are tech-savvy, and he believes that if technology isn’t perfect to begin with, glitches in the system can lead to delays rather than eliminate them. increase.

He points to an automated customs declaration kiosk at Toronto Pearson International Airport. This doesn’t always work well on the first try and ends up with some travelers queuing to talk to people. recognition.

“Putting people who are less tech savvy at it creates more delays,” he says. “So it’s not always more efficient.”

While acknowledging that airlines need to invest in innovation, Dimanche said this is where Air Canada wanted to invest after a year of “travel disruption.” He said he was wondering.

“In my opinion, airlines should now focus on solving existing problems before trying to solve new ones.”

— Using files from Anne Gaviola of Global News

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