Sydney Airport is continuing its facial recognition trials

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Sydney Airport is continuing its facial recognition trials
Image credit: Justin Warren/@jpwarren/Twitter.

But says system isn’t capturing images without passengers' consent.

Sydney Airport is continuing trials of facial recognition systems by Vision-Box but says the machines aren’t storing images of every person they detect when switched on.

Technology analyst and Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) board member Justin Warren raised privacy concerns about the Vision-Box machines this week after finding them on outside the Qantas international business lounge.

Some Qantas passengers had participated in a three-month trial involving the machines in mid-2018. 

However that trial had ceased, and iTnews has confirmed there is no ongoing trial involving Qantas or its passengers.

Sydney Airport has been pursuing what it calls the “fast passenger processing project” since early 2017.

The idea is that passengers will eventually be able to complete most pre-boarding processes using just their face - from checking in at home to boarding the aircraft.

What hasn’t been well understood to date is that a trial of the Vision-Box technology in that project is occurring in phases - with the Qantas participation essentially being a ‘customer-facing’ phase of the broader trial.

What that means is that development of the facial recognition capability is ongoing, with undisclosed technical trials requiring the Vision-Box machines inside the terminal to be periodically powered on and off.

It isn’t clear what Sydney Airport was testing when the Vision-Box systems were turned on again this week.

However, a Sydney Airport spokesperson told iTnews that the machines were not capturing facial images of passengers during these ongoing trials.

“Faces are detected when these units are turned on – however, the system does not record or store the data of passengers who have not opted in,” the spokesperson said.

During the “customer-facing” phase of the trial that involved Qantas passengers, Sydney Airport (and sometimes Qantas) stationed staff at check-in kiosks to get customers’ consent to participate.

During that part of the trial, the Vision-Box system scanned all passengers’ faces looking for a match against the passport biometrics of passengers that had opted in to participate.

Opt-out entirely

EFA board member Justin Warren told iTnews he wanted to find a way to avoid having his face scanned by the Vision-Box machines altogether.

“As a Qantas frequent flyer myself, I've tried contacting Qantas to opt out of having my face scanned by this thing, and customer service didn't even know it was happening,” he said.

“No one at Qantas seems to be able to tell me anything about what's going on. 

“The only statement I can find on their website says it was a short, opt-in only trial that finished ages ago, yet it's still running? 

“And how can an always-on scanning device not scan your face if you didn't opt in, anyway? It has to scan your face to check!”

The ongoing location of the facial recognition sensors outside of the Qantas lounge may present a headache for the airline, since it is largely their passengers that will be detected every time the boxes are active.

However, it is understood the location is determined by Sydney Airport, and it is not clear if discussions have taken place to have the boxes moved elsewhere in the terminal.

Warren said the ongoing trials were an example of the types of “intrusive surveillance systems getting forced on us without any attempt to seek our consent”. 

“It's being done secretively, and if someone happens to notice, everyone involved gets very cagey and evasive,” he said.

“That's not the behaviour of people doing things they think are okay. 

“I suspect they know people won't like what's going on, so they're trying hard to keep it a secret.”

Update, 26/7: The Vision-Box scanners outside the Qantas business lounge have been removed.

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