As biometric facial recognition technology spreads, privacy concerns follow

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Biometric facial recognition will soon play a major role in a range of activities from travel to shopping and buying fast food, according to a new CB Insights report describing the technology’s use by more than 30 American companies.

CB Insights details facial recognition applications for law enforcement, access to cars, banking authentication, virtual makeup samples, personalized fast food customer experiences, healthcare services, hotels, insurance, retail theft prevention, air travel, and a range of uses by energy companies.

Following closely on the heels of a ban on San Francisco city agency use of facial recognition, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is deploying facial recognition technology for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Biometric Exit to screen departing international travelers, local radio station KCBS reports. Federally regulated facilities, including the airport, are not covered by the ban. An airport spokesman said nearly two dozen cameras will be deployed, possibly in 2020.

Digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, meanwhile, is encouraging travellers to avoid facial recognition to preserve their privacy by launching a new website listing airlines that do and do not use the technology.

“The idea behind running a campaign like this is to get people to really praise the ones who are not doing it right now and opt out of flying with the airlines that are doing it right now,” Fight for the Future campaigner Jelani Drew told The Hill.

The website says the lack of regulations around facial recognition makes it vulnerable to abuse. Airlines told The Hill they do not have access to the database, and a Delta spokesperson compared the process to manual boarding check processes. Fight for the Future is supported in its campaign by Demand Progress and CREDO Action.

Fight for the Future says 57,000 people have signed a petition urging JetBlue to cease its biometric boarding program. The legal footing for the TSA’s use of biometrics was criticized in a U.S. House Committee hearing this week.

Even in China, where public acceptance of facial recognition is generally higher than in the Western hemisphere, Abacus reports that a trending thread on question-and-answer site Zhihu recently complained that Ant Financial’s Alipay app identifies users with facial recognition, even when the biometric payment option is turned off.

The comment in the thread with the most upvotes – more than 1,800 – said that people trust government institutions with their data because they can supervise and intervene in their operations. “But people are not willing to let oligopolistic companies collect and use their private information, because they know that when business institutions abuse their privacy, there’s nothing they can do.”

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