Facial recognition remains unregulated in Alaska, even as it grows in use

Alaska Airlines has announced plans to use the technology at Anchorage and in other hub cities as soon as summer 2024

By: - July 19, 2023 5:59 am
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer instructs an international traveler to look into a camera as he uses facial recognition technology to screen a traveler entering the United States on Feb. 27, 2018, at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer instructs an international traveler to look into a camera as he uses facial recognition technology to screen a traveler entering the United States on Feb. 27, 2018, at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Alaska Airlines is planning to use facial recognition technology by summer 2024, part of a system intended to speed preflight check-ins.

The company is optimistic about the program, noting that it is “working to get (customers) through the lobby and to security in 5 minutes or less,” but privacy experts say it’s an example of a worrying trend toward widespread and common use of facial recognition technology.

Other airlines are expanding their use of facial recognition, the Transportation Security Administration is building a test program, and some businesses in larger cities are using it to kick out unwanted customers.

The use of facial recognition in Alaska is unregulated, with no state laws restricting its collection, use or sale.

Former Anchorage Assembly member Joey Sweet led Anchorage to ban the governmental use of facial recognition in that city earlier this year. Private use, by corporations, remains legal.

“It’s the big debate of the 21st century so far: To what extent are we willing to give up privacy for security,” Sweet said. “I think my generation is starting to realize that the whole premise is pretty much a lie. I don’t think we’re any more safe.”

Caitlin Seeley George is the campaigns and managing director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit advocating the prohibition of facial recognition. The group has pointed out airlines for special criticism

“For companies that are collecting this information, they could share it with data brokers, and then it could be dispersed to any number of people — law enforcement, private entities trying to target people for advertising, or beyond,” she said.

Alaska Airlines has been using fingerprint records at its lounges since 2015, the company noted, it doesn’t store biometric information such as fingerprints or faces, and it doesn’t sell that information.

“Alaska doesn’t maintain databases of biometric data and partners with trusted vendors who uphold the most stringent security and privacy practices in the industry,” the company said by email. “Alaska does not store your biometrics nor use biometric information for any purpose other than those listed in our privacy policy.” 

In response to a clarifying question, the airline said that any contractor who manages Alaska Airlines’ facial recognition program will have to abide by the policy, too.

Customers “will always have a choice to opt in or opt out of biometric processes,” the company said.

Seeley George noted that company policies can shift over time, particularly if a firm is bought or sold, and differing rules “lead to a great deal of confusion and make it just harder and harder for any traveler to really understand the broader implications of using facial recognition in a space where many different entities are utilizing it.”

The data industry is booming nationally, with experts predicting that companies will earn billions of dollars in the next few years as they track consumers and sell that data.

While the state of Alaska has been notoriously skeptical of data collection programs run by the federal government — elected officials unsuccessfully fought the REAL ID program for a decade — Alaska also hasn’t approved rules for corporate programs.

In 2021, Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced a consumer protection bill that would have required companies to notify Alaskans when their personal data is being collected. 

The bill also would have required companies to allow Alaskans to request the deletion of that data and would have given residents the right to prevent businesses from selling the data.

In December that year, the bill was amended to cover “biometric information,” such as facial recognition.

“As companies are expanding their collection of consumer data, including with respect to facial recognition and other biometric data, it’s important that there are restrictions on what companies can do because of the chilling effects it can have, not only on consumer privacy, but also on consumer expression,” said Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst for Consumer Reports, in a December 2021 legislative hearing.

Despite that testimony and similar calls to action, neither the state House nor the Senate passed the bill, and neither it nor similar legislation has been reintroduced.

Alaska isn’t an outlier: Few other states have passed laws regulating facial recognition, according to legislation tracked by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Illinois is a rare exception, and its model is getting attention, but not many states have followed its lead.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said facial recognition, especially when combined with artificial-intelligence sorting programs that allow quick processing “is something that’s coming very quickly with very few state or federal regulations. And I’m just kind of worried that we’re going too quickly and too fast, and this information will be able to be utilized in an improper manner.”

He said he’s considering whether to propose legislation in 2024. 

When the Anchorage Assembly voted earlier this year to prohibit the city’s use of facial recognition, Assemblymember Sweet said there was no thought to also banning its use by individuals or corporations.

Doing so would have required a big political lift — something beyond his ability as a temporary member of the Assembly — but when asked whether he thinks the state should ban facial recognition altogether, he answered with an unambiguous “yes.”

“There’s nothing stopping Walmart, or Fred Meyer, or anyone, from investing in that kind of security, and then saying, ‘Oh, here’s this poor person we saw steal some bread last week, let’s scan their face into some shadowy database, and then the next time we see them, we can just give them the boot immediately.’ I don’t think that that’s an acceptable situation, to say nothing of the fact that it can go wrong and misidentify people,” he said.

“With any luck, Alaska can kind of step up to the plate,” Sweet said, noting that Alaska’s strong libertarian bent could lend itself toward a statewide ban.

Anchorage-based travel writer Scott McMurren isn’t so sure. He’s seen and used airlines’ facial recognition programs and is a member of Global Entry, the federal customs and immigration system that uses facial recognition.

“People say they care, but they don’t. Some people do. But as a group, travelers do not care about privacy, they do not care about facial recognition. They do not care about any of that stuff. All they want is to get on the plane with a minimum of hassle,” he said.

Yes, there’ll be people who say, ‘Freedom!’, but if they want to get on an airplane and they don’t want to wait for a long time, then they’re going to sacrifice their privacy.

– Scott McMurren

Travelers were alarmed when TSA introduced backscatter X-ray machines to replace traditional metal detectors, he noted, but the furor died away after TSA modified the machines. Something similar will happen with facial recognition, he predicted.

Are Alaskans any different than travelers in the Lower 48? Yes and no, McMurren said.

“Yes, there’ll be people who say, ‘Freedom!’, but if they want to get on an airplane and they don’t want to wait for a long time, then they’re going to sacrifice their privacy,” he said.

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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