TSA Quietly Deploying Facial Recognition Scanners At Major US Airports


from the controversial-agency-rolls-out-controversial-tech dept

The TSA has been working towards this goal for nearly a half-decade. Its parent agency, the DHS, has already deployed facial recognition tech, most of it aimed at foreigners. The CBP uses it all the time. In 2020, the CBP’s facial recognition scanners at US borders captured 50 million facial images and less than 300 “impostors,” including (according to its press release) someone using their sister’s ID because they themselves had not received a COVID vaccination. Millions spent. Millions scanned. Barely anything useful accomplished. Par for the DHS course.

The TSA’s chance to inflict facial recognition tech on domestic travelers and US residents has finally arrived. Geoffrey Fowler has more details in his article for the Washington Post.

The Transportation Security Administration has been quietly testing controversial facial recognition technology for passenger screening at 16 major domestic airports — from Washington to Los Angeles — and hopes to expand it across the United States as soon as next year. Kiosks with cameras are doing a job that used to be completed by humans: checking the photos on travelers’ IDs to make sure they’re not impostors.

At this point, the system is still voluntary. Travelers can opt out and be verified by human. The TSA claims this won’t result in more hassle for those who opt out, but we should probably withhold judgment on this assertion until there’s more data.

As for data — such as false positive rates, etc. — the TSA doesn’t have any. The fact that it’s a one-to-one comparison should make false positives/negatives less likely, but once again, we’ll have to wait for the TSA to cough up some data to gauge how accurate its biometric tech is.

The TSA also says it won’t store ID info and face images… except when it stores them both because reasons.

The TSA says it doesn’t use facial recognition for law-enforcement purposes. It also says it minimizes holding on to our face data, so it isn’t using the scans to build out a new national database of face IDs.

“The scanning and match is made and immediately overwritten at the Travel Document Checker podium. We keep neither the live photo nor the photo of the ID,” said Lim. But the TSA did acknowledge there are cases in which it holds on to the data for up to 24 months so its science and technology office can evaluate the system’s effectiveness.

And the TSA definitely has plans to store this info indefinitely. Fowler’s article says the TSA plans to roll out a program (presumably opt-in) where travelers won’t need to present identification. Instead, their faces will be their IDs, linked to whatever else is retained in the TSA’s database. This has already been tested with some PreCheck travelers who have flown on Delta planes. In this case, approved travelers’ faces are compared to images (passport, drivers license) photos already contained in government databases.

It may sound reasonable and it certainly seems inevitable, but the rollout of biometric scanners to verify domestic travelers isn’t something to be welcomed. We have no idea how well the TSA’s scanners work. And while it may be voluntary at the moment, you can be sure the TSA will opt for mandatory as soon as it feels it can get away with it. The TSA isn’t going anywhere either, unfortunately. So, in the end, there’s nothing voluntary about the experience, no matter which option travelers choose.

Filed Under: facial recognition, tsa

Leave a Reply