Facial Recognition and AI Technology: Congress Calls for New TSA Privacy Regulations at Airports

May 31, 2024

The Transportation Security Administration began incorporating facial recognition technology into its security protocols in 2020 to enhance airport security measures. This technology captures real-time images of travelers to verify their identities against the photos in their government-issued IDs at security checkpoints. 

Currently, the technology is deployed at 84 airports, though there are plans to increase this number to more than 400. The TSA assures fliers that photos taken for verification are not stored after the process, except in a limited testing environment where data is retained for assessment purposes. While the technology is currently optional, it represents a shift towards more advanced security procedures and more permanent implementation, with certain cybersecurity risks inherent to these new methods. 

Growing Concerns of Facial Recognition AI Technology 

Several U.S. Senators raised concerns about TSA’s use of facial recognition AI, reflecting the tension between technological advancement and individual rights. Two primary concerns are the potential for privacy violations through the misuse of sensitive biometric data, and the fear that widespread use of facial recognition technology could pave the way for a national surveillance state where citizens are constantly monitored without their consent.  

Senators have argued that there needs to be rigorous congressional oversight before the TSA is allowed to expand its use of facial recognition tools. Without proper checks and balances, there is a risk that this technology could be deployed in ways that infringe upon individual rights. Despite the TSA’s claim that photos are not stored after verification, concerns persist about the potential for data misuse or cybersecurity risks like hacking by malicious actors, especially in testing environments where retention of data is part of the assessment process. 

Senators point out that many travelers are not fully informed about their consent options and ability to opt out of facial recognition screening process, leading individuals to unwittingly surrender their privacy rights. And most notably, studies have shown that certain demographics—particularly Asian and African American individuals—are more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition technology. This discrepancy raises alarms about the technology’s fairness, reliability, and security. 

Congressional Responses to AI Technology 

In response to these growing concerns, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced the Traveler Privacy Protection Act of 2023 late last year. This proposed legislation aims to ban the TSA’s use of facial recognition screening at airports until Congress can provide proper oversight, ensuring that the deployment of such technology does not outpace the necessary legal and ethical frameworks. It would also require TSA to delete any facial biometric information it has already collected.  

The proposed regulation is part of a broader legislative effort encapsulated in the Bipartisan, Bicameral FAA Reauthorization Act, which will soon go to the Senate floor. This act includes priorities to strengthen aviation safety, protect consumers, boost the aviation workforce, modernize airports, and advance innovative technology. It also authorizes substantial funding for the FAA and sets new consumer protections into law. The Traveler Privacy Protection Act of 2023 remains in the early stages of the legislative process. Its future will depend on the outcomes of committee deliberations and the subsequent actions of Congress. 

As the TSA’s facial recognition program moves from pilot stages to broader implementation, it is imperative that these issues are addressed through public discourse and legislative action to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. The call for a halt to the TSA’s facial recognition technology until proper oversight is in place reflects a cautious stance on the part of lawmakers, who seek to ensure that security enhancements do not come at the expense of fundamental rights. 

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