How Worried Should You Be as Brands, Governments and Law Enforcement Embrace Facial Recognition?

Your identity is more at risk than ever

Identity theft is poised to take on a whole new dimension.
Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

In 2017, nearly 17 million Americans had their identities stolen. If they followed the Federal Trade Commission’s recommended 40-page recovery process, they had to contact the companies where fraud occurred; place fraud alerts with credit bureaus; review their credit reports; report the identity theft to the FTC and their local police departments; close new charges; remove bogus charges; correct their credit reports; and add extended fraud alerts or credit freezes.

It’s a nightmare, right?

Now imagine it’s your face that needs to be recovered. With the use of facial recognition soaring, and little to no laws on the books regulating it, identity theft is poised to take on a whole new dimension. Even technology companies, which are notorious for prizing innovation above privacy concerns, are taking a beat. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted in an interview last month with The Washington Post, “I think tech has to realize it just can’t build it and then fix it.”

Think about it: You’ve been able to use your face as your passcode ever since the iPhone X came out in 2017. Then Google convinced more than 5 million Android users alone to share their faces to see what works of art they resemble, while a growing number of stadiums allow fans to use biometrics instead of tickets (but so far, it’s still just Seattle fans who can use them to buy beer).

And those are just the instances of facial recognition that have been made public. There are plenty of other times consumers may not be aware the technology is in use—or been given the chance to provide consent.

Convenience, but at what cost?

The travel industry was among the first to embrace facial recognition, using it to expedite and enhance the customer experience.

Delta, for example, has been leveraging it to speed up boarding for long-haul flights but recently took things a step further, integrating facial recognition throughout its international terminal in Atlanta. That means passengers can use their faces to not only board, but also to check in, drop off bags and identify themselves at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. And, upon returning from abroad, U.S. citizens can use their faces to go through customs. (The airline says it will bring this biometric experience to Detroit in 2019.)

Delta says facial recognition saves an average of two seconds per passenger at boarding, for a total of nine minutes on an aircraft like a 747. And, according to the airline, using the technology has been a popular choice with travelers, with “nearly all 25,000 customers who travel through ATL Terminal F each week … choosing this optional process, with less than 2 percent opting out.”

Also recently, Hertz announced it is bringing facial recognition to car rentals—also in Atlanta to start—with the goal of “[getting] travelers through the exit gate and on the road in 30 seconds or less.”

A rep for Delta says the airline notifies passengers that they can opt out, via airport signage, as well as on-screen messages on self-service kiosks, and in emails. However, Anna Yaffee, a physician in Atlanta, says she recently flew to Johannesburg and used facial recognition at the TSA security point and at the gate, but it didn’t seem optional.

The travel industry was among the first to embrace facial recognition.

“No one explained it, and so I was totally surprised when I went to board the plane and was getting my boarding pass out and the gate attendant was like, ‘It’s okay—we’ve got you already,’” she wrote in an email to Adweek.

Nevertheless, Yaffee’s assessment was positive: “Really streamlined the boarding process!”

And while Yaffee says she can see how the technology could make people uncomfortable, she notes we are recorded in many other ways in daily life and—to her, at least—the airport application doesn’t seem any creepier.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 7, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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