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TSA announces plan to implement facial recognition technology

By Sarah May
|
December 13, 2022

Though the specter of widespread use of facial recognition technology at airports across the country has loomed for some time, the Biden administration now appears poised to implement such systems on a more comprehensive basis, as Fox Business reports.

While there are those who welcome innovations of this sort as a means to increase the ease and efficiency of airport security screenings, many others are sounding the alarm about the potentially damaging implications for personal privacy.

Program expansion eyed

According to Fox Business, the screening method known as “Credit Authentication Technology with Camera” (CAT-2) was introduced in the context of a pilot program back in 2017.

The security checks involved taking a scan of travelers' faces at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport checkpoints and then electronically comparing them to images contained on other key documents, including passports or driver's licenses.

What began as a relatively limited trial has since expanded to encompass sites at 16 airports across the United States, and reports suggest that the program could go national as early as 2023, as Business Insider recently reported.

Speaking to the outlet, a TSA official explained, “Biometric technology has the potential to enhance security effectiveness, improve operational efficiency, and yield a more streamlined passenger experience at the TSA checkpoint.”

Traveler concerns grow

Despite the TSA's promises of increased efficiency and convenience, a growing number of Americans are expressing serious concerns about the accuracy of this mode of identification and about the privacy implications of its broader rollout.

Significantly, the TSA has yet to offer data on the accuracy rate of the facial recognition scans used in airport screenings, and some major cities around the country have banned their use in law enforcement contexts due to the risk of erroneous identification and false arrests.

As AFAR magazine notes, many unanswered questions remain regarding how sensitive biometric information of this type is safeguarded and/or stored and whether governments around the world will take a uniform approach to such issues.

William McGee, consumer advocate and senior fellow with the American Economic Liberties Project, highlighted those areas of inquiry, telling AFAR, “We do have concerns,” and noted that although submission to facial recognition scans at airports is currently a voluntary undertaking, individuals may face more obstacles when it comes to opting out once the technology is more widely embraced.

“Trust us”

In a recent op-ed for the New York Post, James Bovard cautions Americans to tread carefully when it comes to going all-in on facial recognition technology at airport screening checkpoints.

Suggesting that the TSA's pledge to ensure the sanctity and safety of travelers' personal information should be taken with a very large grain of sale, Bovard declared, “If you believe that I can sell you a bridge in Brooklyn really cheap.”

In support of his skepticism, Bovard points to the fact that the TSA has not provided data on the system's false identification rates and adds that the agency plans to use tools characterized by an “error rate up to 100 times higher for Blacks and Hispanics.”

Even more alarming, writes Bovard, is the possibility that the scanning process “could be a big step toward a Chinese-style 'social credit' system that could restrict travel by people the government doesn't like.”

Bovard further posed the question of whether the facial recognition software “would be programmed to trigger an alert for anyone who radiates disdain for the TSA” or if “folks who look too ornery for their own good” might be “taken behind closed doors for a TSA 'enhanced patdown.'”

The future is now?

Those and other concerns about the apparently imminent expansion of the use of facial recognition technology at airports were raised back in 2019 by the Washington Post, which noted that such systems represent “America's biggest step yet to normalize treating our faces as data that can be stored, tracked, and, inevitably, stolen.”

As valid as these red flags surely are, Barbara Peterson of AFAR magazine suggests that the train has largely left the station when it comes to broad implementation of biometric identification and that much more is on the way.

A potentially prescient poster on popular travel blog View from the Wing's comment section earlier this year declared, “Sounds like we are not too far away from the world shown in the movie Minority Report,” and that is something that should give all Americas pause and prompt critical questioning of the administration spearheading such a shift.