Senators Want TSA to Pump the Brakes on Facial Recognition at Airports

Senators Want TSA to Pump the Brakes on Facial Recognition at Airports

The Transportation and Security Administration plans to vastly expand its use of facial recognition technology in the U.S., going from 25 airports with the tech to over 430 by this July. And a group of 14 senators from both parties are not happy, arguing in a new letter that, “this powerful surveillance technology as deployed by TSA does not make air travel safer.”

The senators, led by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, are looking to dial back TSA’s use of facial recognition during the upcoming congressional reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, something that happens every five years. The current authorization expires on May 10.

As the Associated Press explains, under the facial recognition program, travelers swipe their driver’s license or passport and pose for a photo at the airport. That photo is then compared to the ID in an effort to make sure the person flying has proper identification.

Merkley and 13 other senators expressed their concern about the TSA facial recognition in a letter addressed to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate minority leader from Kentucky.

“The potential for misuse of this technology extends far beyond airport security checkpoints,” the letter reads. “Once Americans become accustomed to government facial recognition scans, it will be that much easier for the government to scan citizens’ faces everywhere, from entry into government buildings, to passive surveillance on public property like parks, schools, and sidewalks.”

The letter goes on to cite reports that these TSA facial recognition tools have a relatively high error rate, which doesn’t actually make anyone safer.

“In response to congressional inquiries, TSA has not produced evidence that more false identification documents have been discovered since their implementation of facial recognition,” the letter says.

“The 3% error rate cited by TSA represents more than 68,000 mismatches daily if used on all 2.3 million daily travelers. [41 Recent news reports that hundreds of passengers have bypassed TSA security checkpoints entirely in recent years suggest that TSA should focus on the fundamentals, not expanding its facial recognition program,” the letter continues.

The bipartisan group that signed the letter:

  • Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
  • John Kennedy (R-LA)
  • Ed Markey (D-MA)
  • Roger Marshall (R-KS)
  • Kevin Cramer (R-ND)
  • Ron Wyden (D-OR)
  • Steve Daines (R-MT)
  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
  • Mike Braun (R-IN)
  • Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
  • Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)
  • Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)
  • Peter Welch (D-VT)
  • Laphonza Butler (D-CA)

The FAA reauthorization bill as it stands now currently allocates $105 billion in appropriations to the FAA and $738 million to the NTSB, according to CNN.

The facial recognition tech at airports has seen a steady rise, with just 16 airports deploying the tech in late 2022, rising to 25 airports today and 430 by this summer. But it remains to be seen whether pushback from these senators will have an impact. And they’re clearly worried about where this is all heading when facial recognition is being used in a domestic security setting.

“While TSA states the program is optional, it is the stated intent of the TSA to expand this technology beyond the security checkpoint and require that passengers undergo facial recognition scans every time they travel,” the letter reads.

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