The Price of Convenience will always be less Privacy
Airports are transit control centers, and as surprising as it will be to learn it, the square footage of airports is not part of any country. Airports are neutral islands within countries that operate under their own rules.
Facilities at transportation hubs such as airports have changed over the years. They’ve become more comfortable, cozy, modern and above all convenient places for travelers.
With the advent of technology, airports became even more attractive to anyone who visited family for the holidays or who took a vacation abroad. With more influx of passengers, airport administrators sought to make them even more convenient and comfortable. That comfort undoubtedly depends on access to technology such as WiFi, charging stations, large TV screens, shops and now, a fast check-in experience.
Who doesn’t like to run through security without being molested by a security guard at an airport checkpoint? Who would rather go right through the check-in desk instead of having to queue while having to listen to screaming babies? But, what is the cost of all this convenience?
The Pros and Cons of Convenience
Flying without worrying about carrying your passport or ticket, not waiting to check your luggage and even forgetting about it because there is no chance of it being lost when you arrive at your destination, not having to go to the airport in advance is a dream come true. In fact, how about validating your boarding pass at different gates or interact with security agents directly from your cell phone?
Although it may seem somewhat futuristic, the features cited above are already available in the control processes at airports around the world.
The number of air passengers not only continues to grow, but it is expected to double over the next 20 years, according to SITA, a technology provider for terminals and airports around the world.
Consequently, the number of flights will also increase. But not the number of airports. For example, Geneva’s airport cannot expand its infrastructure. It is between a lake, the city and a mountain range.
According to experts, the key to managing this increase in travelers is to incorporate more technology in the process of checking in passengers and luggage. The air sector already uses technology in their processes: from purchase to check-in, luggage management, passenger boarding, operations control or risk prediction.
In 2018 alone, they spent $50 billion, according to SITA’s 2019 Air Transport IT Insights study. The largest investment was in cloud services and cybersecurity. But in the sector it is committed to all kinds of technologies: internet of things, digital payments, computational vision, blockchain, artificial intelligence and 5G.
As people become more dependent on mobile phones, 5G technology and cloud computing, airport administration enterprises move along in the same direction. Those who were born in a digital society deal with travel as they deal with any other aspect of their life: through the telephone.
While the mobile phone becomes an integral part of the life of users, and more and more people depend on this technology to interact in society, more companies join this trend. While facilitating the lives of passengers, they also negatively impact your privacy, since all movements inside and outside your homes are recorded and saved by air companies, social networks, Wi-Fi networks and others.
The question is, what is the price we are willing to pay for convenience?
In 2025, the number of travelers born in the digital age will double from the predigital era -68% from 32% -. Experts allege that passengers don’t want to buy tickets or have to talk to someone to check in to another person to leave luggage, for boarding, or wait for queues. They want to go from point A to point B without flight delays. That is a single simplified experience in which there are not so many steps and only have the strictly necessary human interactions.
Currently, more than half of the travelers use technology to check-in – through the web, their mobiles or machines at airports -, according to the aforementioned report. In addition, in 2018, 44% of passengers used automatic passport control. That is, twice as much as the previous year. For example, the Milan airport installed about 50 e-gates or automatic doors capable of verifying travel documents or the identity of travelers. It has also implemented virtual assistants. They are machines that answer 10,000 passenger inquiries every month.
Convenience is not only about convenience
Facial recognition has also landed in some airports. Face scanning eliminates the need to show your passport or boarding pass at different controls.
This technology, which is already part of our daily lives and can apply a series of biases, has raised controversy in recent years among organizations defending privacy rights.
San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban its use by considering that the right to privacy of citizens must prevail.
On the contrary, the European Parliament has approved the creation of a biometric fingerprint or face scanning database of the more than 500 million inhabitants of the EU that will be available to the security forces.
In addition, 70% of airlines plan to invest in this type of biometric solutions before 2021. Some have already conducted tests at airports such as Hamad International, Qatar, Muscat, Oman, or Orlando, in the U.S..
SITA claims to have achieved the milestone of boarding 240 passengers in approximately 10 minutes. Its president in Europe simply states that airlines protect this type of information and passengers “are prepared to share their digital identity if this brings benefits to them.” Protection of data is questionable at best if you remember that private companies that collect user data are mostly free to share information with partners as long as that is clear in their user agreement. Google just acquired medical data of millions of patients in the United States and very few people are questioning the legality of it. Facebook collects large amounts of data from users and sells that information to the highest bidder.
Airports around the world use labels equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, so it is possible to know the identification and destination of each suitcase by sensors without scanning each label individually.
It is surely comforting to know where your luggage is at all times, especially if it is guaranteed that it will arrive to your destination without getting lost or misplaced, but that does not have to mean that someone needs to scan your iris, face or finger to pair your luggage with your identity. No one but yourself and your family should be aware of where you travel to, what time you take off or arrive and what hotel you booked before you left your home.
Technology should be at the service of passengers, and the companies that operate inside airport terminals, not the other way around, but that is the direction it seems to be moving towards today. There is nothing wrong with companies utilizing technology to run their businesses.
Managing operations is key to avoid congestion at airports. Some tools try to show 3D infrastructures to predict what happens in each place and what can happen.
For example, digital twins is a technology that allows you to visualize everything that happens in the airport: the movements of aircraft, the length of the entrance and security queue, the state of the escalators, the traffic patterns on the level of passengers and even the levels of satisfaction of travelers in the bathrooms.
In the same way, the data collected together with artificial intelligence systems can help decide how to manage the runways or predict when a plane will land. Each time with more room for maneuver.
Thanks to technology, companies like SITA can predict at what time the planes will land. Before they would know within half an hour of landing. Now they use technologies that take into account different factors such as meteorology and are able to predict it six hours in advance.
That is what technology should be used for while respecting passenger privacy at all times. Reading someone’s iris, scanning users’ faces or swiping a cell phone through a checkpoint doesn’t improve privacy or efficiency. It improves control; their control over people’s movements.