Facial recognition executive talks vaccine passports, data privacy, and surveillance


“I do not want to live in an Orwellian society,” said Rob Watts, CEO of Corsight AI, who says his company’s tech could enhance virtual passport efforts and airport security.

Image: iStock/metamorworks

It should come as no surprise that 2020 was a rough year for the airline industry. Amid coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, border closures, and the proliferation of graphics depicting the particulate spray of aerosols in fuselage cabins, demand for air travel plummeted nearly 66% compared to 2019, according to an International Air Transport Association (IATA) report

Needless to say, traveling amid a modern plague certainly comes with a host of logistical and public health challenges. As mass-vaccinations roll out en masse, organizations are now working to deliver digital health credentials a la “COVID passports” to provide traveler health information and jumpstart air travel in the months ahead. Could a vaccine passport paired with facial recognition enhance travel for passengers and expedite wait times at the terminal?

“If this process becomes available, I’ll be signing up to it because it will give me fast track. It’ll give me a route through the airport where I’m not in the mile-long queues with everyone else,” said Rob Watts, CEO of facial recognition technology company Corsight AI.

“And everyone else will be looking at me saying, ‘why is that guy going through fast track?’ Actually, it’s because he’s using facial recognition,” Watts continued.

A number of airlines are piloting IATA’s Travel Pass, which uses an app-based “digital health passport” to detail a traveler’s medical information (i.e. vaccination, pre-flight COVID-19 testing results). Earlier this month, Panama’s government became the first country to participate in a government trial of the Travel Pass, according to the IATA.

Watts believes facial recognition could enhance virtual passport efforts and airport security. He said the facial recognition technology is ready and highlighted the sticking points hindering implementation and widespread deployment.

“The technology is there now [and] ready to be used. It’s just a question of adopting it, but putting in the correct governance, and showing and sharing with the public that their data is safe,” Watts said.

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Watts said that Corsight AI believes the ownership of biometric data should belong to the traveler enabling them to access and control this information in the IATA travel app. The company has also recently added to its executive team with an eye toward data privacy and the use of its technologies.

In January, Corsight AI appointed Tony Porter, the UK’s former Surveillance Camera Commissioner, as the company’s chief privacy officer. Watts said he brought Porter onboard to hold his “feet to the fire” to ensure Corsight AI’s “software complies with [all of] the regulatory privacy matters” and to ensure the company’s software is “used appropriately” with regard to these potential airport and border control applications.

To mitigate the spread of contagion and assess passenger flows, airports have incorporated a vast suite of technologies including thermal imaging, artificial intelligence (AI), and more. As one would imagine, a digital health passport based on sensitive medical data intermeshed with a biometric facial recognition system among passengers traveling from one border to another comes with plenty of governmental red tape and civil liberty concerns.

“While the pandemic has brought about many devastating consequences, including for activities such as travelling, the latter should not be viewed as an opportunity for governments and corporations to indulge in an endless surveillance opportunism,” said Ioannis Kouvakas, legal officer at Privacy International.

SEE: Open source “vaccine passports:” Linux Foundation Public Health talks development, security, and digitally restoring trust (TechRepublic)

During a conversation focused on panoptic technologies, apps sharing sensitive health information, Watts addressed these underlying privacy concerns.

“I’m chief executive of a facial recognition software company. I do not want to live in an Orwellian society,” Watts said. “So we’ve put in place within our software all of [the] privacy notices, GDPR compliance, all of those things so that if I’m sitting on a camera somewhere, I’m not tracked, I’m not in the surveillance. My image is blurred, so it’s a question of the governance.”

Necessity breeds invention, as the adage goes. With the airline industry all but grounded and numerous carriers reportedly at risk of bankruptcy, perhaps the various parties involved will forge agreements enabling a return to the airways and passenger mobility.

“Decisions get made when there’s a compelling event and right now, there is a compelling event and that compelling event is that the air travel industry is pretty much broken,” Watts said. “It wants to get back to showing its customer base that it is operating a safe and secure environment for them to travel in.”

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