Safety, Security

Should U.S. Airports Ban Facial Recognition Security Tech?

The use of facial recognition technology has long been controversial, but the debate is heating up again among lawmakers and the security industry.

Several U.S. senators have called on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to immediately halt its deployment of the high-tech biometric solution at domestic airports. Meanwhile, the Security Industry Association (SIA) has deemed the request “misguided” and potentially dangerous for future travelers.

Privacy Concerns

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR); Edward J. Markey (D-MA); Cory Booker (D-NJ); Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sent a joint letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske.

“Increasing biometric surveillance of Americans by the government represents a risk to civil liberties and privacy rights,” wrote the senators.

According to the lawmakers, recent reports indicate that the TSA has been using and testing facial recognition technology for passenger screening at 16 major domestic airports and that TSA hopes to expand its use of the technology across the entire United States as soon as this year.

“Thousands of people daily are encountering a decision to travel or safeguard their privacy—a decision that threatens our democracy,” the senators continued. While TSA claims that facial identification scans are not mandatory, it is unclear how travelers will know that they can ‘opt-out,’ and what the consequences for travelers are if they choose to opt-out.”

The letter further raised concerns about the racial discrimination this technology may exacerbate, referencing a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) testing 18 million photos of over 8 million people. According to the senators, the study found that Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men by facial recognition technology.

In addition to concerns about government misuse, the senators also raised questions about whether the TSA would be able to keep a vast trove of biometric data secure from bad actors, pointing to a 2019 data breach in which hackers stole thousands of photos of travelers from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security database.

“We urge the agency to immediately halt its deployment of facial recognition technology,” the letter concluded.

The full text of the letter is available here.

Industry Response

SIA, a major trade association for global security solution providers, acknowledged the importance of oversight and privacy concerns. However, the group claimed the senators’ position is “based on mischaracterizations despite clear information provided by TSA on how the technology is used.”

In a statement, SIA urged the TSA to reject the senators’ demands because “in this case, facial recognition provides enhanced security, accuracy, and convenience for travelers without impacting existing privacy rights or expectations.”

SIA noted that the TSA already requires air travelers to present valid ID at security checkpoints and performs visual verification of the travelers and documentation.

“If one chooses to opt in to this completely voluntary biometric program, this additional step is automated at a kiosk. No personal passenger or identity information is retained,” SIA said. “The technology is not used to ‘identify’ or potentially ‘misidentify’ a person—it simply verifies whether (or not) the photo of a person enrolled in the program matches their photo taken at the kiosk. Follow-up visual inspection by TSA personnel can address any issues that arise with the automated process.”

SIA said the American public supports the TSA’s use of facial recognition technology, citing a study that found almost 70% of Americans are in favor.

“Contrary to some claims,” the group added, the technology is “highly accurate overall.” According to SIA, recent test data from NIST found the top 20 facial recognition algorithms are over 99.7% accurate in matching across white, Black, male, and female demographics.

“Congressional oversight is critical to ensuring accountability from federal agencies and programs,” said SIA. “We believe members of Congress should carefully and thoroughly consider the specific, limited, and beneficial role of biometrics in air traveler security as they carry out this important duty.”

SIA’s full statement is available here.

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