Facial ID software draws concerns from ACLU


The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has “serious concerns” about the state’s planned use of facial recognition software in airport terminals to fight the spread of COVID-19.

The state last week began installing facial recognition software along with thermal scanners at airports in order to better monitor travelers entering the state.


Gov. David Ige said earlier this month that the technology would be used in conjunction with the thermal scanners to find people whose temperature exceeds 100.4 degrees and meet with them within the terminal for more comprehensive health screenings.

The governor assured that the technology would not be used to track suspected quarantine violators.

However, the ACLU expressed concerns about the use of such potentially invasive technology in a letter dated Friday.

ACLU Hawaii legal director Mateo Caballero addressed the letter to Ige, state Attorney General Clare Connors, Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay and DOT’s Airports Division Deputy Director Ross Higashi.

“While we understand the urgent need to fight the spread of COVID-19 and safely reopen Hawaii’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,’” the letter read.

The letter went on to criticize the use of the technology not only based on its potential for civil liberties violations, but also for its relative ineffectiveness compared to other, less invasive techniques.

“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 pre-screening 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’s letter read. “Such (alternatives are) preferable, not only because (they raise) fewer civil liberties and rights concerns, but also because (they are) better tailored to preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

The letter also pointed out that, because most people in a terminal will likely be wearing masks, facial recognition technology will be unreliable at best.

Caballero wrote that he and the ACLU are disturbed by the state’s casual proliferation of a technology that has been so controversial that several counties in the U.S. banned its use altogether.

“The state has assured the public that it intends to limit (the) use of the technology inside the airports and plans to store images only during the time that the passenger is at the airport,” read the letter. “However, without knowing the companies involved, the costs, the rules and guidelines, the algorithm used, access limitations, security measures, time and place limitations, the contracts with the companies, data gathering, audits, notices being posted and other similar critical information that should have been publicly disclosed and discussed prior to the deployment this week, the state’s assurances ring hollow.”

The letter concluded by urging the state to, at minimum, produce all government records relating to the technology, and allow public discussion regarding “the unprecedented step that real time biometrical surveillance of millions of people and travelers at the airport means to Hawaii.”


A representative of the state attorney general could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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