Identity Crisis: Biometric Technology in Asian Airports


Image: Jason Ortego

As facial-recognition technology becomes mainstream, public perception about the use of biometric verification is changing. How do travelers in Asia feel?

The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region will be the biggest driver of global air-passenger growth in the next 20 years, according to the International Air Transport Association. One way that airports hope to ease the pressure on existing infrastructure and keep passengers flowing is the adoption of facial-recognition technology at various touchpoints such as check-in, boarding and passport control. Globally, SITA found that 77 percent of airports and 71 percent of airlines plan to invest in biometric facial recognition technology, with the APAC region leading the way.

Starting in the spring of next year, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, Narita International Airport will introduce “One ID,” a facial-recognition system that will allow passengers to board flights without presenting documents. Similar systems are in place in airports in India, China and Hong Kong. Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia is also piloting facial-recognition security checks for flights boarding at Senai International Airport in Johor.

But as facial recognition is being embraced in Asia, critics in the West are raising alarms about how governments could use collected data. Testifying before United States Congress in May, Clare Garvie, a senior associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said facial recognition presents “a unique threat to our civil rights and liberties.” In the same month, the city of San Francisco took the decision to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by police and other agencies.

One reason is that studies have shown facial-recognition systems still produce high rates of false positives. “I’m very wary of facial-recognition technology. It has so many risks, and most of the time it’s taking place without people’s knowledge or consent,” says Ann Cavoukian, the former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, Canada.

78% of APAC respondents said they are comfortable using biometric authentication today.

The government of Singapore was criticized by concerned citizens when it announced in April 2018 a plan to install 100,000 facial-recognition cameras on lampposts across the island city-state, including at Changi Airport, as part of its Smart Nation initiative. Steve Lee, the airport’s chief information officer, told Reuters last year that its experiments were not from a “big brother” perspective, but rather were intended for locating passengers who are lost or late for departing flights.

However, according to IBM’s “Future of Identity Report,” people in the APAC region appear to be less concerned about the technology. The report found those residents have the highest knowledge and comfort level in the world when it comes to using biometrics for identity authentication. Seventy-eight percent of APAC respondents said they are comfortable using biometric authentication today, and 94 percent said they would be interested in using biometrics in the future.

“Identity Crisis” was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.