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NZ airport face biometrics trial deployed against Privacy Commissioner advice

NZ airport face biometrics trial deployed against Privacy Commissioner advice

New Zealand’s Aviation Security Service (AvSec), a branch of the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, started trials of a new face biometrics system at Wellington Airport despite open concerns from Privacy Commissioner John Edwards.

The news was reported by Stuff, which said the ‘secretive’ trial started in June 2021 after Audit NZ claimed many passengers were spending too much time in line.

The new facial recognition system uses biometric cameras to scan the faces of passengers first when they join the line for airport security and again when they go through the boarding gate.

When the technology was suggested by AvSec earlier this year, Edwards openly opposed it, despite the company clarifying the system only stored digital records associated with each person’s face biometrics in secure servers and only for the time they were in line.

The Privacy Commissioner opposed the move on the basis that the technology could be used by other agencies, including the police or intelligence agencies, as well as potentially setting a precedent for wider government use of face-scanning technology.

According to a series of letters obtained by Stuff under the Official Information Act, Edwards clearly stated the facial recognition’s technology impact on privacy far outweighed its benefits.

In addition, the Commissioner also criticized AvSec’s decision of not issuing a press release about the new technology or including information about it on the “What to expect at the airport” section of its website.

In a bid to circumvent the Commissioner’s opposition, AvSec then reportedly asked for separate legal advice on whether the facial recognition technology breached privacy law or not.

The fact the system was ultimately deployed in trials seems to suggest the legal advice received by AvSec deemed the technology did not, in fact, breach privacy law.

Biometric facial verification systems were deployed in 2021 in various airports around the world, as the technology helped to streamline the check-in and security check processes, particularly during the pandemic.

However, some of these systems have also come under scrutiny recently, with a seminar by the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) last February calling for more balance between the benefits of touchless travel and biometrics and the challenge of regulating new technologies.

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