Facial recognition can help re-start post-pandemic travel. Here’s how to limit the risks

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Lofred Madzou, Project Lead, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum


  • The contactless technology is seen as a key measure being increasingly used by transport companies to address passenger fears about virus transmission
  • Potential widespread use raises concerns over privacy, surveillance and racial profiling risks
  • To combat these challenges, the World Economic Forum has released Responsible Limits on Facial Recognition, Use Case: Flow Management, an actionable framework to ensure the responsible use of facial recognition technology
  • Early success of recommendations show potential for further roll-out

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on transportation companies, especially airports and train stations, because of the travel restrictions implemented by most countries around the world and passengers’ growing fear of travel.

In the aviation industry, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger air transport measured as revenue passenger kilometre was down 94% year-on-year in April 2020, across all regions. Eurostat also observed a dramatic drop in demand for rail transport services. Compared with the second quarter of 2019, the sector experienced a 94% decrease in the number of rail passengers in Ireland, 78% in France, and 77% in Italy.

In response to the pandemic, transportation companies had to make immediate major operational adjustments, including limiting passenger capacity, introducing intensive cleaning and consolidating terminals. Yet there is also a growing acknowledgment that regaining passengers’ trust in the post-COVID-19 world will require significant investment in digital technologies to address health and safety concerns.

To this end, an increasing number of industry players are turning to facial recognition technology (FRT), which is perceived as an efficient means to ensure a seamless and contactless passenger journey while preventing virus transmission.

Facial recognition technology requires a robust governing structure

While the development of this technology creates considerable opportunities for the transportation industry, it also raises serious governance challenges for passengers and citizens alike. Indeed, its deployment may further undermine passengers’ privacy, contribute to consolidating surveillance infrastructure and perpetuate systemic racism because of its well-documented bias issue against minorities.

To address these challenges, the World Economic Forum’s governance framework is structured around two key components. Firstly, a self-assessment questionnaire that details the requirements organizations must respect to ensure compliance with the 10 principles for action, which define what responsible use of FRT actually means for this use-case.

Secondly, we recommend the creation of an audit framework, run by third-party certification bodies, that validates the robustness of the risk-mitigation processes introduced by transportation companies. As such, this initiative represents the most comprehensive response to the risks associated with FRT for flow management applications, led by a global and multi-stakeholder community.

Major industry actors such as Narita International Airport (Tokyo), NEC corporation have already tested the self-assessment questionnaire with great success. Also, their answers (available here) have convinced us that the framework is ripe for wider roll-out and adoption in the aviation industry. Now, other industry players are about to run a similar test.

Moving forward

Market forecast confirms that the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term effects on the aviation industry, even in the hypothesis of a vaccine being globally accessible by the end of 2021. To recover and then thrive, airports and airline companies will need to adapt to the “new normal”. This implies addressing passengers’ increased concerns for health and safety through the deployment of facial recognition technology while effectively mitigating the risks associated with this emerging technology. To a lesser extent, the rail industry faces a similar challenge.

In recent years, public concerns about facial recognition technology have grown and civil society calls for stronger regulation of this emerging technology has intensified. As they rely increasingly on this technology to improve flow management, transportation companies need to adopt an appropriate policy response to maximize its benefits.

We argue that this can be achieved by adopting our governance framework. Indeed, taking the self-assessment questionnaire and going through the certification scheme, in collaboration with a certification body, is an agile and robust way to build trust with passengers, regulators and citizens.

In this spirit, we encourage industry players, public actors, civil society representatives, certification bodies, policymakers and academics to join our initiative and participate in our open and experimental approach to strengthen this certification model and ensure its impact.

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