Facial boarding

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At LAX, boarding a plane for Beijing:

It worked for me, rapidly enough that I could just maintain a normal walking pace past the camera console. It printed out my name and seat assignment as I walked past.

Not linguistics, but an indication of where video analysis technology  is heading.

Update — Media coverage: "Your face is your passport: American Airlines launches biometric boarding program", LA Times 12/5/2018; "American Airlines is offering biometric boarding at LAX Terminal 4", Fast Company 12/5/2018; "American piloting facial recognition at one of its fastest-growing hubs", Dallas Business Journal 12/5/2018; etc.

The technology comes from a Dutch company, Gemalto.

And apparently there have been other trials at U.S. airports since August, with at least one imposter detection: "New facial recognition system catches first imposter at US airport", The Verge 8/24/2018.

An opposing view: "What’s Wrong With Airport Face Recognition?", August 4, 2018, by Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. That piece cites a false negative rate of 4%, which seems pretty high. But a colleague on the same flight was not recognized, so with N=2 we have a false negative rate of 50% :-)…


  1. cliff arroyo said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

    "but an indication of where video analysis technology is heading"

    Total Orwellian nightmare?

  2. Bloix said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    You damn well better smile. Anything other than perky cheerfulness is an indicator terrorist proclivities.

  3. Scott Mauldin said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

    Of course, it's introduced first as a novelty of convenience. Then it slowly creeps into more and more objectionable locations, and each time proponents can argue (or doubters can reassure themselves), "you're already using it for A, B, and C, what's so harmful about expanding it to D?"

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 3:31 pm


    You're right. In China, a poor social credit score, which is directly linked to results obtained through facial recognition software, can prevent you from getting a plane or train ticket. Such software is also being used in Chinese classrooms and reports on students' attitudes, with potentially negative consequences for those who are caught with the wrong look on their face.

    The first widespread application of such Orwellian tactics occurred in Xinjiang / Uyghurstan / Eastern Turkestan, where upwards of a million Uyghurs and other Muslims are being held in internment camps. But they are also being increasing applied in other parts of China, especially with those having a substantial Muslim population.

  5. Riikka said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

    @Bloix – On the other hand, I'm forbidden from smiling in the passport photos. Wouldn't smiling thus make me more difficult to match?

  6. Anonymous said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 5:14 pm


    You damn well better smile. Anything other than perky cheerfulness is an indicator terrorist proclivities.

    But not too much! The last time I was questioned at a border I had psyched me up to perky cheerfulness, as you put it, because I know from experience that appearing tired (after intercontinental travel, no less), or hesitant, or nervous, or surly, will be grounds for additional interrogation, and I apparently overdid it because I was promptly asked just why I was so happy to enter the country. Suspicious!

    I find it very sad that as a perfectly harmless traveler I now have to put myself into a frame of mind as if I were a criminal with something to hide and have to deliver a fine-tuned acting performance to cross a border most efficiently. And I have to post this anonymously so it doesn't come up with my name in a border guard's Google search.

  7. Andy Averill said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 8:10 pm

    Is it “imposter” or “impostor”? Historically, o has a big lead, according to the Google ngram viewer, but overall usage has been declining precipitously, going all the way back to 1800. While e has held steady, with a slow increase, but has still not quite caught up to o.

    Maybe it’s significant that there was a Canadian TV series that debuted in 2014 called Impostors, and an American series (though shot in Canada) from 2017 called Imposters?

  8. Jonathan Badger said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 9:18 pm

    And in the US, a few years ago a rule was made that you can't be wearing glasses in your passport photo — even if, like me, you always wear glasses in real life. I suspect this technology is going to run into plenty of problems with things like that.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 9:28 pm

    Hmm, then I wonder what word is being used in its place?

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=impostor%2Cimposter%2Cimpersonator%2Cpretender&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cimpostor%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cimposter%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cimpersonator%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cpretender%3B%2Cc0 reveals that imposter and impersonator are both hugging the bottom, and pretender is suffering the same fate that impostor is having.

  10. Ben said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 11:45 pm

    I experienced this facial recognition boarding on a delta flight to South America last week. It was weird and, yes, creepy. Delta didn’t have a fancy sign like American, just a cheerful attendant telling everyone to smile into the camera and then checking the boarding passes of those who didn’t match.

  11. Yerushalmi said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 4:08 am

    Not linguistics, but an indication of where video analysis technology is heading.

    We can't leave this post like this.


    The "n" in "no need" should be capitalized!

    Whew. That was close.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 8:28 am

    The "n" in "no need" should be capitalized!

    No, the first one is preceded by a comma, not a period.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 11:57 am

    There's an article in the current New Yorker about facial recognition technology. One major drawback is that most commercial systems do not do well with black faces. In fact, the woman who found the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, says that one common algorithm didn't even recognize her face as a face!

    Here's a link to the article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/17/should-we-be-worried-about-computerized-facial-recognition

    (I'm not sure if you can access without having a subscription.)

    And here's a link to the AJL website: https://www.ajlunited.org/

  14. MikeA said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

    Gemalto? Weren't they the ones behind various cock-ups with the Oyster card?

    Oh, yeah, I definitely want them deciding whether I go to Toronto or Guantanamo.

  15. Oh You Poor Dumb... said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

    In addition to the Type I and II errors and the China-style movement controls about to emerge, there is worse to come.

    The government has deliberately refused to forbid the airlines to exploit the passport info and face recognition scheme away from the gate. So soon everywhere you go in the airport and outside it your identity will be announced to everyone. When you go into a shop a robot will exclaim "Hi Mr. Liberman!" and the local anti-Semitic mugger will hear it. Merchants will be able to implement aggressive price discrimination schemes (oh, you flew in First Class? To you that sandwich is $12, not $10). No more traveling-incognito for entertainers, or worse, the involuntarily-famous, such as crime victims. Kidnappers will have a field day.

    The notion that a robot should recognize you and proclaim your identity to an infinitude of strangers wherever you go is profoundly dystopian.

    Ticketless airplane boarding is small recompense for all the harms about to be inflicted.

  16. F. E. Guerra-Pujol said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 7:32 pm

    The irony is that I was told not to smile when I took my passport photo!

  17. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 2:27 am

    @Jonathan Badger:

    Last year, I had to take off my glasses for a facial recognition machine at Immigration at a UK airport. The catch, of course, being that without them I had some difficulty seeing where the camera I was supposed to look into was.

    I guess the solution is to mandate contacts as the only permissible means of sight correction for fliers.

  18. Jim said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

    Presumably this isn't getting used *only* for improved boarding techniques.


  19. Linda Happer said,

    December 18, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

    After reading all the comments, it seems this technology can and will be used by all companies and all governments, eventually. If the U.S. Constitution still applies, don't people have "Right to Privacy" under the Constitution? Here is another Elite-Control Technology that definitely deserves several lawsuits!! Regarding the airlines: How about just looking at the person to see if their face matches their passport??

  20. Steve Bacher said,

    December 25, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

    More linguistic commentary: "Your photo will be automatically compared to passport records" should be "compared WITH". Otherwise it's just a system that compliments your visage for looking just like you stood for a passport photo.

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