Biometric face-scanning online at Zurich airport

Geneva plans to be the second Swiss airport to trial automated passport control Keystone

Automated biometric passport control systems have started operating at Zurich airport on Wednesday as part of the airport’s drive to remain on top of increased capacity demands and keep queues moving at immigration checks.

The face recognition system is the centerpiece of a recent CHF8 million ($8.2 million) expansion and revamp at Switzerland’s largest airport. Geneva airport also plans to install the Automated Border Control (ABC) system.

The voluntary system is available for passengers over the age of 18, with biometric passports of either Switzerland or countries belonging to the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA). Such passengers, arriving from outside the Schengen zone, can choose to use the face scanners rather than present their passports to immigration control officers.

The process lasts between 10 to 20 seconds for each passenger, which is important for an airport that sees 40,000 passengers each day. Last year, a record 27.7 million passengers used Zurich airport.

Zurich cantonal police, which will operate the new system, moved to allay data protection concerns when it was unveiled at the airport on Wednesday. “Firstly, this is a voluntary process,” said Ueli Zoelly, who is in charge of policing at Zurich airport. “None of the data is saved, it is all deleted. We have checked carefully to make sure that that the system complies with Swiss data protection laws.”

The Swiss data protection commissioner’s office did not comment directly on the biometric passport control system, but noted that it is grounded in Swiss legislation.

Biometric face recognition measures the distances between people's eyes, mouth and other facial features, giving a unique reading for each individual. This data would then provide officials with a means of identifying people and thus detect terrorists or other criminals.

Automated biometric passport border control systems are already in use at several airports, including Amsterdam. Zurich’s system will undergo a trial test for several months before police decide next year whether to make it permanent and if more scanners are needed to complement the initial eight that have been installed.

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