“In light of COVID-19, advanced health and safety precautions have become a top priority and part of the new normal for TSA,” Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement that accompanied the announcement. “As a result, we are exploring rapid testing and deployment of this touchless, self-service technology.”
But the use of facial scans is controversial and has raised concerns among lawmakers, privacy advocates and civil rights groups. They said that even during a pandemic, it is important to make sure that measures are put into place to ensure the technology is used properly and that efforts are made to safeguard any data that is collected.
“While I am glad that TSA is developing security technologies to reduce checkpoint interaction while the nation is still in the midst of a pandemic, it is clear that facial recognition technology has not been fully developed yet and still faces privacy and civil liberties questions,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which has held several hearings on the use of biometrics.
“I continue to have concerns that facial recognition technologies have known inherent racial biases and are unable to accurately and consistently process people of color,” Thompson said. “It is apparent that facial recognition camera systems malfunction too often to be effective in the field — and these malfunctions are often due to skin color and age.”
Andrew Ferguson, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said via email: “The path to the surveillance state is paved with good intentions. It is also paved with cynical uses of real emergencies to shift power to the government. It is unclear which path the TSA is on.”
The TSA piloted a similar system last fall at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
At National, the new system is at Terminal B, the checkpoint for Gates 10 through 22, and is open to those enrolled in TSA’s PreCheck program.
Instead of handing their identification to a TSA officer, passengers who agree to participate will be directed to insert their identification into a machine. The same unit will take a picture of the traveler and compare it with the image on the person’s ID. For now, a TSA officer will verify that the images match, but eventually, travelers will be able to complete the entire process on their own, Pekoske said.
TSA officials said the photographs taken are used only to verify travelers’ identity and are not saved. That element may be key, because a 2017 study by researchers at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology found that while Congress has passed legislation authorizing the collection of biometric data from noncitizens, it has never explicitly authorized collecting that information from citizens.
For more than a decade, Congress has pushed Homeland Security officials to develop programs that use biometrics to track people who enter and exit the United States. In 2016, lawmakers authorized the use of up to $1 billion from certain visa fees to fund the program. In March 2017, President Trump gave the program another boost when he signed an executive order to expedite deployment of biometric screening programs.
While the technology has been widely used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process international travelers, it wasn’t until 2017 that the TSA began piloting the technology with an eye toward using it for domestic screening.
Pekoske said TSA’s ultimate goal is to provide a “safer checkpoint experience, while adding significant security benefits.”
A study released this month by the Government Accountability Office examined the agencies’ use of facial recognition programs to verify the identity of travelers. The report, done at the request of Thompson and Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Gary C. Peters (D-Mich.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, found that CBP has made progress in deploying and testing the technology but that it could do more to strengthen privacy principles, including offering more comprehensive information about how travelers could opt out of the scans. In some instances, the GAO found that travelers were not always told scans were optional, and in some cases, those who opted out were told they might have to undergo additional security measures or be barred from boarding their flights.
The GAO report also examined the TSA’s use of facial scans, including whether the agency complied with privacy protection principles. During a one-hour observation of the 30-day pilot at McCarran Airport last fall, nine of the 10 travelers who opted to take part in the program had their images successfully captured and matched. The system was unable to match one person because of damage to his ID. (The TSA conducted a separate evaluation of the program and used that information in developing the one at National.) The GAO also looked at pilot programs at Los Angeles International and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airports.
The GAO said given the limited nature of the tests, it was too early to fully assess whether the agency complied with privacy protection principles.
Ferguson, the American University law professor, said that of all the facial recognition technologies in use, the type being used by the TSA is the “least dangerous of a dangerous technology.”
Still, he added, there is reason for caution.
“First, facial recognition will come to airports, then train stations, then offices, then stadiums, stores, and schools. In each place, the individual privacy harm is not significant (with appropriate privacy safeguards), but collectively, the harm grows. You can see a future where the face will become the ubiquitous identity card, and that is a frightening future to envision.”