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Facial recognition technology is smoothing out the airport experience, but some security experts worry about taking humans out of the picture.

Proponents of biometric technology say it’s a godsend in the airport setting, saving time and money for travelers, airlines and airport authorities, but others are raising concerns about reliability and privacy, especially when it comes to some of its latest applications.

One such development is the Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real Time (AVATAR) technology, created by a group of researchers from the University of Arizona and funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. With AVATAR, travelers are questioned by a virtual agent, instead of a customs officer, using eye-detection software and motion and pressure sensors to detect dishonesty.

“Until the technology can be accurate enough to identify the target audience, it should not roll out on a wide scale,” – Jeffrey Price, Metropolitan State University of Denver

“I’m a big believer in behavior detection, and automation is a good supplement to human behavior detection, but there are numerous schools of thought on what constitutes suspicious activity,” says Jeffrey Price, an aviation and aerospace professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. And while Aaron Elkins, one of the developers of the system, says AVATAR has a detection success rate of up to 80 percent – better than human agents – Price cautions that, “Until we can get to a point where the technology is fast enough and accurate enough to identify the target audience, it should not roll out on a wide scale.”

Homeland Security seems to agree, having not pursued any further trials of AVATAR since one conducted with volunteer travelers at the US–Mexico border in 2012. Canada and the European Union, however, are still pursuing the technology.

Travelers may have something to say about being called a liar by a machine, but less invasive solutions like biometric bag drop, lounge access and boarding are catching on. “The boarding process we tested is really popular with passengers,” says John Newsome, chief information officer for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. His company operates Orlando International Airport, which will be incorporating SITA’s Smart Path technology at all of its 30 international boarding gates by October, making it the first in the country to require a face scan of passengers on all arriving and departing international flights, including American citizens.

Facial recognition technology also figures in the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) One ID concept, which promises travelers will be able to use a single biometric token for flight booking, security checks, border control and baggage collection. “Dubai, London, Heathrow, Bangalore and Sydney airports are doing their own projects, sharing with us and trying to align with One ID,” says Hemant Mistry, IATA’s director of Global Infrastructure and Fuel. “Other interesting projects and initiatives are taking place in Singapore, Amsterdam and Aruba.” Moving forward, the association is looking to gain the trust of the multitude of stakeholders involved in the air travel ecosystem.

In Your Face was originally published in the 8.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.