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ACLU Raises Concerns Over Facial ID Technology in Airports

June 23, 2020, 1:00 PM HST
* Updated June 23, 12:17 PM
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While Hawai‘i’s airports are being outfitted with screening equipment to protect island communities from COVID-19, the American Civil Liberties Union fears that technology could be violating constitutional and privacy rights.

On Monday, ACLU of Hawai‘i emailed a letter to state officials addressing their concerns, specifically related to the use of facial recognition technology at all of the state’s major airports to identify individuals with the virus.

“While we understand the urgent need to fight the spread of COVID-19 and safely reopen Hawai‘i’s economy, the indiscriminate and rushed use of FRT—particularly without adequate regulations, transparency, and public discussion—is ineffective, unnecessary, rife for abuse, expensive, potentially unconstitutional, and, in a word, “terrifying,” ACLU’s Legal Director Mateo Caballero stated in the letter.

To stem the spread of the coronavirus, a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling outside of the state was put in place in March and remains in effect till July 31. Inter-island quarantine was lifted on June 16.

With the hope of reopening the state to tourism, Hawai‘i Department of Transportation will install thermal screening at airports statewide, which will be complemented by facial recognition cameras to track those who register high temperatures.
HDOT officials say this technology will help with efficiency in identifying people with a fever at the airports to help keep the community safe.

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“While it is called a facial recognition system, people should not think of the features in a spy movie,” HDOT spokesman Tim Sakahara stated in an email Monday.

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The intended technology, Sakahara said, will not know the person’s name, where they live, or if they have a criminal record or warrants.

“It would only retain an image of the person’s image if they have an elevated temperature of 100.4 degrees and above,” he said. “The images will be retained for 30 minutes and then they will be purged.”

Sakahara assured that images would not be shared with any outside agencies. If someone walks through the airport and is found to have a normal temperature below 100.4 degrees their image will not be taken or retained.

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In Caballero’s letter, he argues that facial recognition technology is neither effective nor tailored to addressing the spread of COVID-19.

“The use of such prying technology for this purpose is like putting a square peg on a round hole, particularly in light of simpler, more accurate, and significantly safer alternatives such as prescreening people prior to arrival, using thermal imaging technology, and having sufficient and properly-trained staff to identify people with COVID-19 symptoms for additional screening,” Caballero writes. “Such alternative is preferable, not only because it raises fewer civil liberties and rights concerns, but also because it is better tailored to preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

Sakahara explains the technology is anticipated to be more cost-effective and utilize fewer resources.

“Without the use of the technology an employee would need to be next to each camera at all times to pull a person aside as they walk by the camera,” Sakahara said. “This would equate to hundreds of employees statewide and cost millions of dollars.”

With the facial recognition picture, Sakahara added, the person can be pulled aside at various points within the airport with fewer employees.

HDOT’s plan to implement its new health screening strategy will begin with a pilot program at Daniel K. Inouye Airport on June 26, during which five different companies will offer their technologies for the trial run. The new equipment will be funded by the federal CARES Act.

After the pilot program is over and a final bid is accepted, the new screening strategy will be implemented in a three-stage process:

-Phase 1: Thermal scanners will be installed at gates in use by mid-July.
-Phase 2: Thermal scanners will be installed at all gates by July 31.
-Phase 3: Facial recognition cameras will be installed by Dec. 31.

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