Privacy vs efficiency: How your personal data will be used at SA's airports

2019-05-23 12:00 - Gabi Zietsman
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Are you willing to offer up personal data to get you to your destination faster?

Airports are becoming more efficient in how they handle the millions of passengers that travel through their terminals, moving towards a self-servicing system that lets passengers control their journey almost every step of the way.

READ: The future of SA airports? Putting the passenger in charge of (almost) everything except piloting the plane

But while new technology gets rolled out into airports across the world, many have raised concerns on how the data collected by these systems are used and whether the passenger really gives adequate permission to use their personal data.

And it's not just with facial recognition software. One airline is making plans to 'discreetly' weigh their passengers, while New Zealand dishes out fines to visitors who refuse to unlock their personal devices for border officials.

The TSA in the US was even sued a few years ago for their breach in 'visual privacy' when it came out that their new body scanners were showing people's sexier body parts to TSA agents, according to Quartz

Europe however has one of the strictest personal data laws. Ian Thornton-Trump, security head AMTrust Europe, told Forbes that two main rules apply: "If you can't protect it don't collect it" and "if you need to collect it, only collect the minimum amount required."

The UK, on the other hand, uses self-service e-passport fast lanes to help with their insanely long immigration queues, but there have been some questions over the data that the airport has access to. 

SEE: Tired of dingy, smelly and overcrowded airport bathrooms? What OR Tambo is planning for you

But what does it mean for South African airports?

For the general managers of South Africa's airports, the key points around the privacy issue are the benefits passengers get in return for their data and the country's laws surrounding it. 

"You will essentially get to a point where you’ll need to encourage your passengers to pre-qualify themselves. We are moving into a space where the regular traveller is registered and willing to part with certain information within certain parameters, that would allow the airport then to know about them and then in return offer some benefits," says Deon Cloete from Cape Town International.

"And one of the main benefits is the ease of processing and fast-tracking," but Cloete adds that in South Africa we are not quite there yet.

Cape Town has finished their trial of a new e-gate system similar to the UK, where South Africans and certain other nationalities can breeze through immigration. It is expected to be rolled out to OR Tambo and King Shaka later this year as well.

In the future airports could be creating profiles around passengers that will help test certain concepts and individualise their experience, specifically in the retail section. Historically the interface with passengers has been on the day of their flight with limited reach, but this too is changing as new technology in the Internet of Things is developed.

ALSO SEE: Why that duty-free perfume at the airport could lead to cheaper airline tickets

Data laws reign supreme

Terence Delomoney, from King Shaka International, believes that policies and laws on a government level will have the last say in what can happen to your data.

"The industry is still grappling with that. There is a lot of information and data available, and the airline and immigration departments get a lot of that data, but the airport gets pretty limited information on a customer unless they log in to the WiFi and fill out some information," says Delomoney. 

"What we're finding is that collaboration amongst the entities and stakeholders at the airport itself is starting to happen, but there is a bit of a battle as to how we determine that competition issues and privacy laws are not flouted.

"There's still a bit of work that we needs to do there."

Whether the first-party data can also be used by the Department of Home Affairs to track visitors who overstay their visas, as part of an Orwellian overzealous surveillance system, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear - the privacy rules as regulated by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) will need to be carefully adhered to.

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