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Why Congress Should Temporarily Restrict TSA’s Facial Recognition Program

By Richard Anthony, Emerging Technologies Policy Advocate

Public Citizen is deeply concerned about the rapid expansion of facial recognition technology by the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at airports across the United States. This program would allow flyers to utilize facial recognition technology at airport security checkpoints to confirm their identity before flying, instead of providing paper identification.  

There are several issues with TSA’s plans for the expansion of its facial recognition program.

  1. It sets a dangerous precedent for ubiquitous government surveillance of citizens. Once citizens accept routine facial recognition scans at airports, it becomes easier for the government to extend such surveillance to various public spaces, thereby eroding individual privacy rights.
  2. There are serious doubts about the efficacy of facial recognition in enhancing security because there is little to no evidence demonstrating that facial recognition has made or will make air travel safer. 
  3. The potential for false identifications, such as with black women being misidentified about 35% of the time, raises doubts about the civil rights implications of this technology. 
  4. Although TSA says it destroys the facial recognition data it collects, there remains a possibility of mistakes and data breaches.
  5. Against this, proponents claim only that facial recognition speeds up airport security lanes. It’s not clear that machines are faster than humans in checking IDs, but it’s all beside the point, because security delays are due to carry-on baggage screening and body scans, not ID checks.

In light of these and other issues, Public Citizen strongly supports the bipartisan efforts of Senators Merkley, Kennedy, Markey, Marshall, Cramer, Wyden, Daines, Warren, Braun, Sanders, Lummis, Van Hollen, Welch, and Butler to freeze the expansion of TSA’s facial recognition program to additional airports until Congress can thoroughly examine the implications and enact necessary safeguards to protect our civil rights and liberties.

The FAA reauthorization package presents an opportunity for Congress to implement oversight and rein in the unchecked expansion of facial recognition surveillance. It is imperative for Congress to prioritize the protection of privacy and civil liberties by enacting measures to restrict TSA’s facial recognition program until important civil rights questions are answered by the program’s administrators.