Travelling in the European Union is about to become either easier, safer or spookier. Last week, the EU parliament voted overwhelmingly to create the Common Identity Repository (CIR). This will be a massive database of over 350 million biometric records that consolidates data from several other repositories. The data will not be limited to just EU citizens - anyone travelling within the EU will be swept up in this new system.
Biometric databases aren't new. Anyone travelling into the United States will be familiar with the fingerprint scanning and photo collection that happens there. Earlier this year when I was in Singapore, I noticed that Changi Airport now uses fingerprints to let you pass through customs checkpoints.
And we know that China has a massive database used for facial recognition of its citizens and that Indian citizens, through the Aadhaar system, can use biometrics to prove their identity.
Of course, like so many information gathering exercises, the excuse of better law enforcement is being used to justify the creation of this new system with the catchphrase "Secure, Safe and Resilient Societies" the title of an official EU presentation on the system.
A recent traveller on a JetBlue flight in the USA recently was able to board a flight recently when facial recognition was used to validate her identity.
I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight. Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge. Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?
— MacKenzie Fegan (@mackenzief) April 17, 2019
In that case, the airline said they were able to match the passenger's face against an image they accessed from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They also said they don't have direct access to the DHS database. Presumably, the airline sends the image they have and all they get back is a pass/fail response.
With governments around the world increasingly turning towards data collection as a means of detecting criminal activity, we are all being watched more than ever before. And, while the systems in the USA, EU, China, India and other countries are currently separate, it's not hard to see how "international cooperation" could lead to systems that can track people everywhere.
I'm just paranoid enough to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future where a satellite could snap a picture of me and facial recognition systems could tell a government where I am in near real-time.
Am I being paranoid? Do I need a mask and tin-foil hat whenever I go out now? Or is the "if you're not doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about" maxim in play here?