The Transportation Security Administration has been testing facial recognition technology as an option for travelers at select U.S. airports for years, touting it as a way to speed up identity verification at security.
But now, the federal agency is poised to implement the system nationwide, causing alarm for privacy advocates and other critics who say the facial scanning systems bring a flurry of concerns.
The screenings, dubbed "Credit Authentication Technology with Camera," now known as CAT-2, were rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security in 2017 as part of a pilot program, and involve scanning fliers' faces at the TSA checkpoint and comparing the images to the travelers' documents such as their driver's licenses or passports.
Since then, the biometric system has expanded to 16 U.S. airports, and travelers are starting to notice.
The Washington Post recently reported on the issue "after hearing concerns" from "readers who encountered face scans while traveling." The outlet learned from an interview with Jason Lim, who runs the TSA's facial recognition program that the agency "hopes to expand it across the United States as soon as next year."
The situation is reminiscent of the IRS's push last tax season to require facial recognition scans for Americans to access their tax returns, which was met with fierce backlash over privacy concerns and ultimately scrapped. One of the many worries over the tax collector's program was data breaches, and the TSA already had its facial data breached in 2019.
The TSA has not provided data on how accurate the scans are, which is another significant concern for critics.
Business Insider noted that facial recognition technology's "use by law enforcement is even illegal in some cities, including San Francisco as, in some cases, racially-biased facial recognition scans have led to false arrests and even jail time for a Black man who was misidentified."
Lim reiterated that the facial scans are optional and assured The Post that the TSA does not store the live photo, save for some kept on hand for two years to test the system's effectiveness or for law enforcement purposes. But the TSA – known for its watch lists – could be in for a tough sell.
Americans have long been skeptical of facial recognition technology due to its broad use by the Chinese government, which notoriously surveils its citizens and punishes government critics.
In a New York Post column Thursday, James Bovard addressed just that issue.
"The TSA scanning system could be a big step toward a Chinese-style ‘social credit’ system that could restrict travel by people the government doesn’t like," Bovard wrote. "Actually, TSA has already been caught doing that. In 2018, the New York Times exposed a secret watchlist for anyone TSA labels ‘publicly notorious.’ TSA critics to the end of the line — forever?"
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