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TSA Using Facial Recognition at Airports in Pilot Program

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) is now using a facial recognition system to check the IDs of airline travelers at select airports to assess whether the system should be deployed nationwide.

 The TSA checks are intended to enhance the safety of passengers and staff, but even when they work as intended, they impose a heavy toll. Getting through these checks has added a significant amount of time to pre-boarding procedures, frustrating many travelers. The often less visible cost in the system comes from schemes that jeopardize or outright trample on people’s rights.

During the COVID crisis in 2020, the TSA began using a facial recognition system that August at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (“DCA”). Used for general passenger screening, travelers place their photo ID into a machine and look into a camera for up to five seconds. This is a “one-to-one” system in that it compares your live face to the image on your ID to check for imposters. It does not yet scan national databases for facial matches, nor does it save the image of most travelers’ faces – “the TSA did acknowledge there are cases in which it holds onto the data for up to 24 months so it’s science and technology officers can evaluate the system’s effectiveness.”

After expanding the pilot program to 16 major domestic airports, the agency has expressed that the program is “definitely a security enhancement” that also saves time for travelers.

“We are so far very satisfied with the performance of the machine’s ability to conduct facial recognition accurately,” said Jason Lim, who helps run this program formally known as the Credential Authentication Technology with Camera.

However, the founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Albert Fox Cahn, has expressed doubts about the system. “I don’t trust the TSA to evaluate the efficacy of its own facial recognition systems,” said Cahn.

Several studies have shown facial recognition systems to be less accurate when comparing faces of women, non-binary, and Black and brown people. One 2019 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that “Asian and African-American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, depending on the particular algorithm and type of search.”

“I am worried that the TSA will give a green light to technology that is more likely to falsely accuse Black and Brown and non-binary travelers and other groups that have historically faced more facial recognition errors,” said Cahn.

“No one should worry about being misidentified,” said Lim responding to such concerns. “That is not happening, and we work diligently to ensure the technology is performing according to the highest scientific standards. Demographic equitability is a serious issue for us, and it represents a significant element in our testing.”

There is reason to be skeptical of Lim’s claims because the TSA has, so far, refused to release “hard data about how often its system falsely identifies people, through incorrect positive or negative matches.” The TSA can make claims, but without transparency, other scientists and experts cannot verify those claims, which is how science works.

This may change sometime in 2023 when the TSA has to go before DHS to make its case for expanding the system to airports all over the U.S., as such reviews tend to make more data public about opaque pilot programs.

For now, use of these ID systems is optional. “None of this facial recognition technology is mandated,” said Lim. “Those who do not feel comfortable will still have to present their ID – but they can tell the officer that they do not want their photo taken, and the officer will turn off the live camera.”

“What we often see with these biometric programs is they are only optional in the introductory phases – and over time we see them becoming standardized and nationalized and eventually compulsory,” remarked Cahn, noting that airports are a highly coercive environment in which to ask for a person’s consent.

Also, though the TSA claims that it doesn’t store information on the majority of travelers who use the system, there is the real risk of a person’s biometric data being stolen. The TSA says all its databases are encrypted, but the DHS disclosed a data breach from 2019 where photos of travelers were stolen, having been accessed through the network of one of its subcontractors.

Travelers want to save time and hassle when going through airports, but those who understand the true risks and costs and refuse to consent will pay a tax with their time, and may eventually face additional scrutiny. When the hassle and intrusiveness of the security theater is ratchetted up and imposed on those travelers who refuse to participate, how voluntary are such programs, really? 


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