Bipartisan Group of Senators Urge Restrictions on Facial Recognition by TSA

A group of 14 senators from both parties last week called on Senate leadership to include restrictions on the TSA’s use of facial recognition technology in the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.

In a May 2 letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the senators, led by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, and Republicans John Kennedy (LA) and Roger Marshall (KS), called for a halt to the TSA’s use of the technology without congressional oversight.

The senators argued that facial recognition technology posed a threat to the privacy and civil liberties of air travelers and said Congress must prohibit the TSA from developing or deploying the technology until after there was “rigorous congressional oversight.”

The TSA opposes the move, arguing that the use of facial recognition technology at security checkpoints has improved efficiency, the effectiveness of security, “and the passenger experience.”

Currently, the TSA uses the technology at 84 US airports and is planning to expand its use to the roughly 430 airports covered by the TSA in the coming years.

With facial recognition screening, air travelers either place their driver’s licenses in a slot that reads the data or their passport photo is placed against a card reader. The travelers then stand before a camera that captures their picture and compares it to the photos on their IDs. If the two photos match, a TSA agent signs off on the screening.

According to the TSA, the photos and comparative ID photos are deleted once the passenger clears the checkpoint.

The TSA maintains that facial recognition screening improves the accuracy of verifying identity without further delaying passengers getting through checkpoints. The agency insists that the technology is not a surveillance tool and does not compile a database of the collected photos, nor is it used to monitor travelers at the checkpoints.

TSA administrator David Pekoske said last year that while air travelers can currently opt out of the facial recognition check, eventually, the TSA would require biometrics at checkpoints because they are the most efficient and effective tools for verifying the identity of passengers.

In their letter, the senators warn of the increasing use of facial recognition technology by the TSA without “public discourse or congressional oversight.”