The Transportation Security Administration is testing the use of facial recognition technology at airports across the nation, a move that the federal agency claims will help employees more easily identify travelers.
Passengers may soon find themselves in a security screening line where they are asked to place their identification into a slot and look into a camera, after which a small screen will take their picture and flash the words “photo complete,” permitting the traveler to continue through the security process without handing their identification to an employee.
The technology is currently in use at 16 airports throughout the country, such as those in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, according to a report from the Associated Press. Passengers are allowed to opt out of the pilot program conducted by the TSA, which is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
TSA employees in the security lines with the technology, which examines whether the identification is real and whether the identification belongs to the traveler, will nevertheless be present to ensure that the system reaches correct conclusions.
The test of the technology comes despite a February letter from five members of the Senate, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who expressed concern over reports that the system could be implemented across the United States as soon as this year if deemed successful. The lawmakers contended that facial recognition technology “represents a risk to civil liberties and privacy rights.”
“We are concerned about the safety and security of Americans’ biometric data in the hands of authorized private corporations or unauthorized bad actors,” the letter continued. “As government agencies grow their database of identifying images, increasingly large databases will prove more and more enticing targets for hackers and cybercriminals.”
Federal entities already leverage facial recognition technology in various capacities despite the privacy and security concerns: a report published last year by the Government Accountability Office found that 18 out of 24 agencies reported using facial recognition systems in fiscal year 2020, largely for computer access and law enforcement activities, while 14 out of 42 agencies that employ law enforcement officers reported using the technology in criminal investigations.
Americans broadly support the “widespread use of facial recognition technology” by police officers who utilize the systems for law enforcement purposes, according to a survey from Pew Research Center, in which 27% of respondents said the policy was a “bad idea” and 46% said the policy was a “good idea.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who also endorsed the letter, previously criticized Amazon smart doorbell company Ring after the firm provided law enforcement with videos from user devices in emergency scenarios after making a “good-faith determination that there was an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury” involved in the situation. The lawmaker said that the policy justifies passage of his Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, which would prohibit state and federal entities from accessing Americans’ sensitive data.
Other state and local governments have indeed banned biometric recognition technology. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit last year against Google and Meta for breaches of state laws which prohibit technology firms from using data such as iris scans, fingerprints, voiceprints, or records of hand and face geometry for commercial purposes without permission.