If-then-else: ePassport gates and the automation of identity at international airports

On arrival at Heathrow Airport Terminal 3, I went through one of the "ePassport" control gates that are being rolled out to replace staffed desks. The UK government launched the third generation of eGates at Terminal 5 in October 2015.

According to the Heathrow.com website, the ePassport gates are designed to "make arrivals easy" and "offer an alternative to conventional passport checks":

Simply scan your e-passport at the barrier. The system runs a face-recognition check against the chip in your passport, then if you're eligible to enter the UK the gate opens automatically – all in a matter of seconds. (source)

For the 30-odd minutes I stood in line, the last adjective I could think of to describe this arrivals operation was "easy." I saw roughly one in three people being rejected after two scan attempts. Each rejection was accompanied by an ominous buzzer sound, prompting nearby staff to usher the person to the "other line," where they could consult a human officer.

People were clearly frustrated by this experience. Some were also visibly distraught by it. I overheard one man say to his partner "this is a joke," and another that "it's a lottery as to who gets in." In front of me, I watched an elderly man help his wife get ready to go through the machine. He had a UK passport, and she had an Indian one. After two tries the woman was rejected and told to join the other queue. She was nervous and obviously felt humiliated by the "rejection." I overheard a man behind me say "it would help if she had a British passport," referring to the fact that the ePassport system is reserved (for now at least) for UK/EU nationals.

In my view, this hit-and-miss behaviour was not simply a matter of "teething problems", but rather constitutive of the system itself. The argument in favour of automation on the grounds of increased efficiency is more of a PR move than a desired outcome.  I find this problematic on two levels. Not only does it remove the "public face" of government from the immigration process, transforming immigration entry criteria into "if-then-else" code uploaded remotely to the entry gate computers, but it means that the burden of enforcing stricter entry eligibility criteria no longer falls on people, but becomes entirely systematic – untouchable, unquestionable, unthinkable.

Immigration processes are dehumanizing at the best of times. In that brief encounter with the immigration officer, one's entire identity is reduced to a series of categories. Even though many of the officers I've encountered over the years could be described as "machine-like" – surely a reflection of the mundane and repetitive nature of the job, which is of course another argument for automation – there is still a small space for verbal negotiation should you need to clarify your purpose. There is also space for simple human expression. It's amazing how far a smile and a simple greeting can get you when navigating bureaucratic structures. But that interactive and performative space is denied with automation.

I am not a technological pessimist. Technology is by definition automation in the sense that its primary function is always to improve human interaction with the world, removing "friction" from repetitive processes. But there are some instances where automation is being touted by authorities as an improvement to social life, while in reality it serves to make power relations more opaque. EPassport systems are one such example.