Global Entry is gradually incorporating more facial recognition technology as a way to get travelers through airports more quickly, but civil liberty advocates are concerned about what this means for the government’s growing catalog of passenger data. Instead of having to scan both a passport and fingerprints and then answer four questions about their trip, fliers enrolled in the program may soon only need to have their photo taken, then they can grab their receipt and head on their way.
Global Entry is a program offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which pre-approves travelers for expedited passage through customs and immigration. In exchange for giving the CBP fingerprint scans, passport data, information on past travels, a brief interview, and a $100 application fee, travelers get a five-year pass to skipping what can be an hours-long line at immigration when they fly back into U.S. airports.
Travelers started reporting appearances of the new Global Entry facial recognition feature at a few major airports over the past year, including commenters on frequent-flier forum Flyertalk who experienced it in Orlando in 2018, as well as reporters from The Points Guy who recently flew into Miami (MIA), Houston (IAH), and New York (JFK) and wrote about seeing the tech at work there. Initial reviews were a mix of users who were impressed with the speed and convenience, those who have privacy concerns, and others who are skeptical about the accuracy of the photo capture technology.
Global Entry’s integration of facial recognition has been long promised—but slow to roll out. “Facial recognition is part of the larger story of biometric boarding at several airports and airlines,” said Gary Leff, the air-travel expert who writes View from the Wing and who has frequently reported on this topic.
The fact is that we’re likely going to see more of it. Legislation to collect biometric data on travelers has been around since shortly after 9/11, according to a CBP report, but lack of technology and funding slowed down the process.
The effort got a jumpstart in 2017 when the Trump administration issued an executive order that was more remembered for including the “Muslim ban” but which also included a push for facial recognition data on all travelers at the country’s top 20 airports by 2021, as reported by Buzzfeed.
One reason for this push, according to the Buzzfeed article, is that the government wants a better way to vet travelers as they enter the country but also as they board planes out of the country. As it stands now, the only check could be when a the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worker compares a passport to a boarding pass. World travelers will know that this is unusual—most countries require a stop at a more official control station on the way out. Eventually, the U.S. government wants to have a database of biometric markers (face, fingerprints, etc.) so that a person’s face would be scanned when going through security, and officials would be able to link that to their network and spot high-risk travelers. Adding facial recognition to the Global Entry kiosks is a step toward figuring out how to do this on a larger scale.
So in June 2018, CBP announced a pilot program, launching facial recognition in Global Entry kiosks at Orlando International Airport, though it’s not clear if the kiosks will eventually eliminate fingerprint and passport scans in favor of facial recognition or if the face images will just be another layer of the process.
A few months after the CBP pilot program announcement, TSA came out with a plan to expand the use of biometric technology in the country’s airports during passenger check-in. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly came out against that plan. Its concerns were that travelers’ faces will be cataloged by the U.S. government along with their personal information and fingerprints and that there are no clear rules and regulations in place about how that data can be used.
A TSA report on its planned biometrics expansion, on the other hand, argued that travelers are becoming more accustomed and desensitized to providing their personal information. “Travelers increasingly use biometrics, such as fingerprint and facial recognition, in their daily lives to access their mobile devices, apps, and accounts. As biometric usage continues to spread throughout the consumer market, popular perceptions have evolved to appreciate the convenience,” the report stated.
“There are arguments where you understand why [the government] wants this” said Leff, “and there are scary elements to it as well.”
But, added Leff, travelers do already provide their fingerprints at the Global Entry kiosks, and some give their iris scans to Clear (the private airport security expediting service of which Delta and United now own a piece), so maybe it’s not that big a stretch for travelers to accept face scans, too.
For now, there seems to be plenty of time to debate that issue because despite recent sightings, the rollout of the program at Global Entry kiosks is neither speedy nor bug free. I landed at JFK’s international terminal last week: Half the Global Entry kiosks were not working at all, and the one I used required passport and fingerprint scans and then took a photo over my head of the crowd behind—not quite the foundation for accurate facial recognition technology.
>> Next: TSA PreCheck Versus Global Entry: Which Is Best for You?
Billie Cohen Billie Cohen is executive editor of AFAR. She lives in New York City.