British Airways is rolling out its biometric gates to more US airports

British Airways has announced that it’s expanding trials of its biometric gates to three more US airports in Orlando, Miami and New York.

The technology has been trialled on BA flights from LA’s LAX airport to Heathrow since November, where BA claims it has helped the airline to board 400 customers in only 22 minutes – less than half the time it takes without the technology.

Now, customers flying from Orlando International Airport to Gatwick can also benefit from faster boarding,  and passengers on some BA flights from Heathrow to Miami and New York will experience similar trials, only on arrival rather than departure.

In the case of the Orlando and LA trials, passengers no longer need to show their boarding pass and passport at the departure gate. In order to introduce such technology, the airline has worked in collaboration with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which provides the records against which the airline checks passengers’ identities. 

“Our latest trial with SITA in Orlando is helping us to reduce the time it takes to board our aircraft, and early indications are that using biometrics for arrivals has huge potential too,” said Carolina Martinoli, British Airways’ director of brand and customer experience. “These trials will help us to evolve the technology and processes we use to best suits the needs of our customers.”

Back in January, BA’s biometric gates caused a stir when one passenger reported that he’d been unable to opt out of a trial on a flight from Heathrow’s Terminal 5. The original story continues below.

Original story continues

A photo of a seemingly innocuous sign at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 last week caused a mini Twitterstorm after it was posted online by an IoT security specialist.

David Rogers took a snap of the sign before an international flight at the London airport. The left-hand side of the sign read: “We are trialling a new process today and welcome any feedback,” while the right-hand side said: “We’re running tests here to assess how new equipment could speed up identity checks.”

The key sentence, which caused the mini-storm, was: “The tests are voluntary. If you don’t want to take part, let us know.” Rogers claimed that when he asked BA staff how to opt out of the trial, he was told it wasn’t possible and this led to replies and retweets from concerned flyers.

The first attempt at a biometric automated border control was in 1992 in Amsterdam, and fingerprinting has been used for over a decade. E-passports have become increasingly widespread since 2004 and are now commonplace in the major UK airports.

British Airways has been using its new facial recognition technology and so-called “biometric gates” on domestic flights at Heathrow’s terminal 5 (T5) since last June. It later began trialling it on flights out of Los Angeles’ LAX airport in December.

“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.”

The aim of BA’s “biometric gates” is primarily to make the check-in process quicker and easier. They don’t strictly add anything in terms of security, but instead automate an existing manual process. After your face is scanned at security, computer software is used (instead of a human agent) to confirm your identity at the gate for your flight.

British Airways did reply to Roger’s tweet, saying it was keen to hear what it passengers are feeling about the new facial-recognition equipment tests, but didn’t address the privacy concerns, seemingly missing the point Rogers was making and adding to the confusion.

We further contacted BA for comment regarding Rogers’ experience and a representative told us he was given the information in error.

“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,” the company representative told us. The company explained that you can opt out of the trial by asking a member of BA staff, but that that wouldn’t stop your image from being captured altogether.

terminal-5The thing is, when you use BA’s “biometric gates” at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, no more information is actually being captured compared to a human-controlled gate. The scanning of your face when you first present your boarding pass at security – a procedure that’s carried out by the airport rather than the airline – takes place either way, and the only difference is that a computer confirms your identity instead of a person.

“Until the systems are fully tested (for both functionality and security/privacy) they should be optional,” Dr Garfield Benjamin from the Birmingham Centre for Cyber Security and Privacy at University of Birmingham told Alphr.

“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.”

As Dr Benjamin continued that a more valid concern is not with our biometric data being captured at airports, it’s with the balancing act between “national security [and] the business interests of airlines and the technology providers”.

“They should not, for example, be able to exploit our identity data for targeted advertising,” he explains.

Researchers from the Birmingham Centre for Cyber Security and Privacy are working on a solution. Dr Benjamin’s colleagues, Professor Mark Ryan and Dr David Galindo are developing technology that ensures security services leave a trace whenever they access our private data.

“It is an idea called ‘accountable decryption’”, Dr Benjamin said. “More generally, this is the notion that security services need to access data in specific circumstances (e.g. passport control) but that they should not be able to do so without leaving a trace.”

“Accountable decryption allows authorities to access personal data (such as biometrics for facial recognition at airports) in a way that ensures it is always proportionate by making it accountable. Citizens would be able to find out when, why and by whom their data has been accessed.”

Dr Benjamin believes it should be applied in all instances where our biometric data is used for security checks, including by airlines using facial recognition software.

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