Orwell in Orlando: Smile for the Facial Scan


By Robert McGarvey


Big news rocking the Internet travel boards is that Orlando Airport is beginning to scan the faces of all international passengers including US citizens.  

There also are more limited tests of face scans ongoing at eight US airports including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, McCarran International Airport, Houston William P. Hobby Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Miami International Airport.

How is this justified? The US Customers and Border Patrol has said a March 6, 2017 Executive Order calls upon CBP to “expedite the completion of a biometric entry exit tracking system for in-scope travelers to the United States.”

Many travelers are reacting with fear and uncertainty.

Others insist this is the beginning of our Orwellian end.

Some of the anti scanning arguments are well thought out and zero in on doubts about the reliability of scans as well as complaints about the immense costs associated with the program (in the billions).

What do you think?

Frankly, I am inclined to shrug it off.  Mind you, I am a staunch civil libertarian.  I see essentially no limits as appropriate on speech or the press.

And yet my knickers aren’t knotted over the face scans at Orlando and elsewhere.

The process, incidentally, is said to take two seconds and have a 99% match rate.

Terrorism – unquestionably – remains a worry of every traveler. In recent years our real threats have mainly been ground based terrorism but it wasn’t that many years ago when the skies were a battleground and in those days I remember feeling grateful with every safe landing.

Will face scans in fact make us safer?  That’s the real question.

I am a huge believer in the power of data to deliver more safety to us, especially at airports and in the skies. Government, I believe, only now is beginning to make serious efforts to harness big data.

Face scans included.

I also know my face is on file at the US government – yours probably is too. The other day I sat for a face shot to get Global Entry.  I had another photo in connection with applying for TSA Pre. Of course there’s a passport photo (actually a montage of photos covering many passports over many decades).  And there are who knows how many photos associated with my many driver’s licenses, even hackney licenses in Boston and Cambridge.

Apparently, in this CBP process, only the passport photo is used in the match and you need one to fly internationally anyway.

The US government knows what I look like and if that helps make me – and you – stay safer at airports and in the air, I am okay with a face scan.

As Joe Brancatelli said to me, “they take your picture for Global Entry every time you come INTO the country, so what’s the big deal when you LEAVE the country.”

Privacy advocates worry about people who are denied boarding because their face scan doesn’t match the photo on file. Others say that face scanning of non whites has more inaccuracies than of whites.

Obviously these are issues that need dealing with.

Also, there are many reports of hackers fooling face recognition tools – for logging into a phone for instance. A decent photo may sometimes work magic.

But photos and masks are highly unlikely to go unnoticed at an airport.  This isn’t a worry I have.

Do we need face scans on top of the many checks already in place?  The government generally has many hours to check international passengers against lists of people about whom there are worries.

Toss enough data into that stew and maybe we don’t also need face scans.


By the way, British Air has used face scans in tests at LAX, JFK, Orlando and Miami.  It said the technology dramatically sped up boarding.

Sure, there are good reasons to fret about yet more biometrics used on us.  I get that. But, for now, I say let’s give the scans a chance. With all the federal government already has on file about me I don’t see what more is lost with this.

And if it ups safety in the air and at the airport, I am all in.


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