Next time you’re at airport security, get ready to look straight into a camera. The TSA wants to analyze your face.
The Transportation Security Administration has been quietly testing controversial facial recognition technology for passenger screening at 16 major domestic airports — from Washington to Los Angeles — and hopes to expand it across the United States as soon as next year. Kiosks with cameras are doing a job that used to be completed by humans: checking the photos on travelers’ IDs to make sure they’re not impostors.
The TSA says facial recognition, which has been banned by cities such as San Francisco, helps improve security and possibly also efficiency. But it’s also bringing an unproven tech, with civil rights ramifications we still just don’t understand, to one of the most stressful parts of travel.
How TSA facial recognition works
American airports have been experimenting with so-called biometric technology for years, following the 9/11 attacks. You might have seen Customs collecting biometric information from passengers entering the United States. In 2019, I tested some of the ways airlines were using face scans to replace boarding passes for international flights. The TSA’s facial recognition pilot began at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) amid concerns about covid transmission through contact in August 2020.
This system is for general passenger security screening. You step up to the travel document checker kiosk and stick your ID into a machine. Then you look into a camera for up to five seconds and the machine compares your live photo to the one it sees on your ID. They call this a “one to one” verification system, comparing one face to one ID. Even though the software is judging if you’re an impostor, there’s still a human agent there to make the final call (at least for now).
So how accurate is it? The TSA says it’s been better at verifying IDs than the manual process. “This technology is definitely a security enhancement,” Lim said. “We are so far very satisfied with the performance of the machine’s ability to conduct facial recognition accurately.”
What about people who don’t exactly look like their driver’s license photo? Minor variations in appearance over time — such as changing your hairstyle — have negligible negative impact on identity verification, the TSA says.
But the TSA hasn’t actually released hard data about how often its system falsely identifies people, through incorrect positive or negative matches. Some of that might come to light next year when the TSA has to make its case to the Department of Homeland Security to convert airports all over the United States into facial recognition systems.
So do you have to participate?
“None of this facial recognition technology is mandated,” said Lim. “Those who do not feel comfortable will still have to present their ID — but they can tell the officer that they do not want their photo taken, and the officer will turn off the live camera.” There are also supposed to be signs around informing you of your rights.
But does it mean you’ll get moved to a slow line, get an extra pat down, or a mark on your record? “You should have no derogatory experience based on you exercising your right,” said Lim. If you suspect that has happened, the TSA says you should ask to speak to a manager.
“What we often see with these biometric programs is they are only optional in the introductory phases — and over time we see them becoming standardized and nationalized and eventually compulsory,” said Cahn. “There is no place more coercive to ask people for their consent than an airport.”
Even people who care a lot about privacy often find their limits when it comes to airline travel. People gravitate to options that help them get through the airport faster — and it’s not hard to imagine ending up with a bifurcated airport experience, said Cahn.