A dystopian view of contactless travel


A pigeon’s view of CCTV cameras

Amidst the airport’s security cameras, facial recognition technology and contactless check-in, it took a dog (and a human) to catch me out. We were about to exit customs in New Zealand when a customs officer with a beagle on a lead passed us by. The beagle tracked back, put his front paws on my trolley and sniffed at my black shoulder bag.

“Have you had food in that bag, Sir?” the Customs Officer asked.

“I bought a sandwich at the airport in Brisbane and ate it on the plane,” I explained.

“What kind of sandwich was it?”

“Um, chicken – chicken and avocado.”

She smiled: “Right, well he’s trained to sniff out chicken.” She gave the dog a treat and we continued on to the exit.

Apart from a side trip to the duty free shop, this was the only human contact we had, coming and going, apart from a tired-looking Brisbane customs officer at the end of a very long queue, collecting arrival forms and pointing us to the exit.

When tackling the now ubiquitous automatic check-in kiosk, I began to realise that my new passport, complete with a photo of a stern-looking 74 year old, contains a microchip which identifies me on facial scanners.

As Smart Traveller summarises:

All Australian passports, except for emergency passports, are ePassports. An ePassport contains an electronic chip that helps to confirm your identity. International airports in Australia, and some overseas, allow Australians with ePassports to use automated passport control machines.

At our point of departure were check-in kiosks where your boarding passes are printed from a machine, along with baggage tags. The first time I tried this I accidentally pasted the baggage receipt (which you are supposed to detach but nobody explained that) on the checked-in bag. A burly chap watched as I hefted my 16kg bag on to the conveyer belt. He kindly retrieved pieces of bar code from my sticker and pasted them on the side of my suitcase. Then we proceeded to Customs check-in where you had to pour out perfectly good water, remove everything from your pockets (belt, wallet, passport, phone, even a soggy hankie) and stand like The Terminator  in the X-ray machine.

I dislike having to remove my belt as I have enough trouble keeping my pants up with a belt. Once I’d passed through X-ray and been re-united with my stuff, I stood around in everyone’s way and took as long as possible to put my belt on, stuff the hankie back in my pocket, etc.

“Move along please, Sir.”

Now to the duty free shop, where assistants (all two of them), limited conversation to “$72.99 – on card?”

By the way, who carries cash in these times? One day we are all going to get caught out like we did when trapped in a post-Cyclone town.

Power cuts and cell phone outages neutered ATMs and EFTPOS machines all along New Zealand’s east coast. Did they not think of that?

(I distinctly remember whingeing about that at the time, as well as complaining on behalf of our country cousins who can’t rely on the Internet. Ed)

My lasting memory of leaving Auckland (after going through the same contactless palaver), was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a smiling airport employee, bidding us ‘Haere Ra’ (goodbye come again).

The people that used to do that sort of job are probably working unsociable hours at one of the airport’s fast-food joints.

One of my friends who found himself unexpectedly flying to England for his mother’s funeral, clutching an emergency passport, commented on Facebook about travel in 2023 – “It’s not like it was.”

One could imagine he was not in the mood, but he’s right – the absence of friendly people making sure we end up in the right place together with the security overkill at both ends is exhausting. On a brighter note, at least no-one comes through the aircraft spraying insecticide before you disembark. Remember that?

Dirk Singer writes that the contactless travel trend began during the Covid pandemic as a means of limiting human contact. Understandably, the whole world was concerned about this in 2020 and 2021, Maybe not so much in 2022 and 2023, but the trend has been accelerated by the acceptance that our face is now our boarding pass.

Biometric scanners can be quite confronting if you are among the 40% of people who get anxious when they travel. The machine barks at us: stand there, remove your glasses, stay still, don’t smile. If we somehow manage to put our feet in the right place and follow the rest of the instructions, the little gate will slide open just long enough to let one person through. I briefly wondered what would happen if you just stood there in the gate, like a reluctant sheep? How long would it take for one of the few remaining airport employees to arrive and sort you out?

There’s more social distancing to come. Some companies are trialling robotic food deliveries within airports. How long before the food trolley coming down the aisle is driving itself? Crikey, even the dunny flushes itself.

The latest developments envisage robots staffing airport check-in desks, carrying out security protocols, cleaning and even delivering food to passengers waiting in airport lounges.

The proponents of contactless travel (airlines) like to tell us it is safer, healthier and less stressful. Yes, but what about those of us who routinely lose our minds when in the confines of an airport (or to a lesser degree, a railway station)?

According to kiwi.com, 40% of people become anxious to some extent at the thought of travelling on an airplane. Moreover, 6% of people are affected by aviophobia — the clinical fear of flying.

As for Facial recognition scanning, it has been around for a long while now. In addition to its use at airports, these days it is used by police and security services to review CCTV footage. As you probably know, Great Britain once led the western world when it came to installation of CCTV cameras (4 million). I clearly recall a Billy Connolly travelogue where he encountered one of the silent watchers on a bridge in Scotland. Billy being Billy leaned into the lens and extended his middle finger.

‘Person of Interest’, a TV drama series frequently featured investigators scanning crowds, using facial recognition technology. Suddenly they have a hit. The person of interest’s file pops up on the right side of the screen. Nowhere to hide, just like George Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith in 1984.

The combination of CCTV and facial recognition used by governments and private enterprise has the personal freedom movement in a panic.

Last year there was considerable outrage when Choice magazine broke a story that major Australian retailers were collecting biometric information in-store. Bunnings, KMart and the Good Guys all agreed to ‘pause’ their use of the technology while the legality is being assessed.

As for the spread of CCTV cameras, Comparitech.com’s Paul Bischoff ranks China at the top of a global survey of cities under surveillance.

China has an estimated 540 million surveillance cameras (54% of the global total) to cover 1.46 billion people. That’s 372.8 cameras per 1,000 people. (The latest development in China is to identify people jaywalking and send them an instant fine (by text).

Sydney, at the other end of the scale, has 4.67 cameras per 1000 people and Melbourne 2.13. So where would you rather live?

There’s a lot in this study and it is hard to make comparisons. But the inescapable truth of it is, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, we are all being watched.

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away.” Winston Smith, 1984.

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