On Delta, facial recognition boarding doesn't sound optional


Well, not quite.

Screenshot by ZDNet

Minneapolis Airport is a nice place.

Rather like Minneapolis itself. (In my five-day stay, I only witnessed the aftermath of one shooting.)

But when you got a late flight, you’re tired, and there’s a long line at Wendy’s, there really aren’t that many options for edification.

So I sat at the gate, staring toward TV screens in a diner, waiting for my Delta flight back to San Francisco.

Suddenly, I heard an announcement from the next gate. It was a Delta flight to Amsterdam, and the gate agent wanted passengers to be excited.

You see, Minneapolis is one of the airports where the airline is testing facial recognition boarding, and this Delta gate agent was describing it in gushing terms.

He said it would make boarding quicker. He said it was brand new and fancy and so very simple.

The one part he seemed to omit was that it was optional.

You can, of course, still show the gate agent your passport and your boarding pass.

But who wants to perform such an onerous task when you can stand on a circle — be careful you’re positioned correctly — wait for both a green light and an OK from the gate agent, and then take a receipt and board?

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This is supposed to save time? Delta says it does and I’m sure Customs and Border Protection would agree. After all, it’s their photo database that’s giving you the approval to board the plane.

Yet, though there are some signs around gates explaining that the process is (at the moment) optional, the fact that the gate agent didn’t mention it was slightly disturbing.

This is the way technology is foisted upon humanity.

Someone somewhere has decided it’s a good idea. So to make everyone use it, the sponsors create the conditions for you to instantly believe it’s the norm.

I asked Delta whether the fact that the technology is optional should have been part of the gate agent’s announcement.

An airline spokeswoman told me: “The script serves as a redundancy to signage in place at the gate — when boarding the aircraft, there are signs from both CBP and Delta that explain the optional facial recognition technology process and to see an agent if customers want to use an alternate procedure. The current standard announcement script highlights that the process is optional and explains how to opt-out. When this was initially rolled out, we focused on explaining the new, optional process, but have further clarified how to opt-out as a redundancy to the signage.”

Well, all I can tell you is that I heard no announcement that it was optional. Actually, I can also tell you I’m not alone.

Writing in Wired, Allie Funk, a research analyst for Freedom on the Net, had a similar experience. She said: “I didn’t hear a single announcement alerting passengers how to avoid the face scanners.”

While Delta may say that there’s a standard announcement script, could it be that at least some gate agents are ignoring the standards?

After all, gate agents and flight attendants are pressed by airlines to make sure that planes leave on time. The technical term for this is D0.

Some gate agents might suspect that if they keep telling passengers facial recognition is optional, there will be more who take the option. It’s only human, after all. Not everyone is delighted by the prospect of what looks like a surveillance state, even if airports in Europe regularly use facial recognition at one stage or another.

In Funk’s case, opting out wasn’t easy: “I had to leave the boarding line, speak with a Delta representative at their information desk, get back in line, then request a passport scan when it was my turn to board.”

This is, however, supposed to be an opt-in service. Why can’t you walk up to the scanner, tell the gate agent thanks but no thanks, hand them your passport and boarding pass and board?

Oddly, that night in Minneapolis, many people ended up doing just that.

Because, after boarding had started, another announcement came from the gate agent: “Well, it looks like one of our scanners isn’t working, so we’ll have to board you the old-fashioned way.”


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