Privacy experts have urged caution about widespread adoption of biometric security, as Sydney Airport announced a trial of facial recognition technology with Qantas on Thursday.
The airport and airline will trial the first stage of “couch-to-gate” biometrics, which could eventually mean that passengers will be able to go through most stages of the airport using only their face as a means of identification, cutting down queue times.
University of Canberra assistant professor and privacy expert Dr Bruce Baer Arnold told The Australian Financial Review this trial would likely be watched closely by government departments and big corporates and could be the start of widespread adoption of biometric technology in public spaces.
“We can see this being used across the private and public sector. There are pluses and minuses with any application of this and there are definitely privacy concerns,” he said.
“We believe this approach will spread to other transport locations like Central Station in Sydney and Flinders Street and Southern Cross stations in Melbourne. And if the security rationale is about preventing terrorism, why not extend it to other locations like shopping malls, public squares or stadiums like the MCG. It could be anywhere that people gather together.
“The concern there is that this is ultimately disproportionate. Biometrics are very powerful and can produce real social benefits, or it can product real harm. Just because you have a hammer, doesn’t mean everything is a nail.”
The first Sydney airport trail with Qantas flyers on international flights will test four major steps – automated check-in, bag drop, lounge access and boarding.
In the future, Sydney airport hopes to extend this to mobile check-in and automated border processing.
Neither Sydney Airport or Qantas were giving interviews about the use of the technology on Tuesday, but Sydney Airport will be responsible for the passenger data.
“In the future, there will be no more juggling passports and bags at check-in and digging through pockets or smartphones to show your boarding pass – your face will be your passport and your boarding pass at every step of the process,” Sydney Airport chief executive Geoff Culbert said in a statement.
Dr Arnold said there were some advantages of virtualising the check-in process using facial recognition technology, but said it was crucial for Sydney Airport and Qantas to be transparent about the use of the data, if it was being shared, where it’s stored and its consent process.
Participants in the trial will be asked when checking in on selected Qantas international flights if they would like to participate, and Sydney Airport said in a statement travellers would be provided with detailed information on the collection and storage of their data as part of the registration process.
If they agree, they will have their photo taken at a special kiosk, scan their passport and check in, creating a a link between their photo, passport and their booking information.
Qantas intends to use the facial recognition technology to also provide a personalised experience for travellers in its lounge.
At boarding, customers will use a dedicated automatic boarding gate that will match a photo of the customer’s face with the original image taken at check-in.
Facial recognition technology has already been used in airports for years thanks to customs’ SmartGates and University of Technology Sydney associate dean of research in the faculty of engineering, Michael Blumenstein, said this will likely make travellers more comfortable with the use of facial recognition technology.
“The public acceptance of biometrics has been astonishing. We use it now with fingerprint scanning on our phones and in some cases facial recognition,” he said.
“There’s more people saying it’s OK, rather than being cautious. But I think there will be a tipping point where people see this getting worse and worse and more and more of our data being used.
“But the reality is if this is done properly and people are informed of what the data is used for, it can help speed things up and make the customer experience better.”