New TSA Tech Assesses If 'You Are Who You Say You Are'

Pilot program is using facial recognition in 16 airports, but some are worried about privacy issues
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 15, 2023 9:20 AM CDT
TSA's Newest Experiment: Facial Recognition at Airports
Jason Lim, identity management capability manager for the Transportation Security Administration, discusses TSA's new facial recognition technology during an interview at a Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport security checkpoint on April 26 in Glen Burnie, Maryland.   (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

A passenger walks up to an airport security checkpoint, slips an ID card into a slot, and looks into a camera atop a small screen. The screen flashes "Photo Complete," and the person walks through—all without having to hand over their identification to the Transportation Security Administration officer sitting behind the screen. It's all part of a pilot project by the TSA to assess the use of facial recognition technology at a number of airports across the country, per the AP. "What we are trying to do with this is aid the officers to actually determine that you are who you say you are," says Jason Lim, identity management capability manager for the TSA, during a recent demo of the technology for reporters at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The technology is currently in 16 airports. In addition to Baltimore, it's being used at Reagan National near Washington, DC, as well as at airports in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Jose, and Gulfport-Biloxi and Jackson in Mississippi. However, it's not at every TSA checkpoint, so not every traveler going through those airports would necessarily experience it. The effort comes at a time when the use of various forms of technology to enhance security and streamline procedures is only increasing. TSA says the pilot is voluntary and accurate, but critics have raised concerns about questions of bias in facial recognition technology and possible repercussions for passengers who want to opt out.

Travelers put their driver's license into a slot that reads the card or place their passport photo against a card reader. Next, they look at a camera on a screen about the size of an iPad, which captures their image and compares it to their ID. The technology is both checking to make sure the people at the airport match the ID they present and that the identification is, in fact, real. A TSA officer is still there and signs off on the screening. A small sign alerts travelers that their photo will be taken as part of the pilot and that they can opt out if they'd like. It also includes a QR code for them to get more information. Since it's come out, the pilot has come under scrutiny by some elected officials and privacy advocates. In a February letter to TSA, five senators—four Democrats and an independent who's part of the Democratic caucus—demanded the agency stop the program.

story continues below

Lim, however, said the images aren't being compiled into a database, and that photos and IDs are deleted. Since this is an assessment, in limited circumstances some data is collected and shared with the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate. TSA says that data is deleted after 24 months. Lim said the camera only turns on when a person puts in their ID card, so it's not randomly gathering images of people at the airport. That also gives passengers control over whether they want to use it, he says. "We take these privacy concerns and civil rights concerns very seriously, because we touch so many people every day," he noted. Retired TSA official Keith Jeffries acknowledges the privacy concerns, but says in many ways the use of biometrics is already deeply embedded in society through the use of privately owned tech. "Technology is here to stay," he says.

(More airport security stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.