Facial recognition technology has advanced in recent years, driven equally by the convenience and priorities of government sniffers. Now, if your plan to go far by air, you can expect to have to stare at the camera while a computer algorithm scans your features to make sure you’re not an imposter. The TSA is testing facial recognition technology at airports as a way to ensure travelers are who they say they are and speed through security lines. This is, perhaps, an improvement for impatient travelers, but even more so for never-satisfied security.
“The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Denver International Airport (DEN) has deployed the next generation of credential verification technology (CAT) to verify the identity of passengers,” TSA announced last November. “The first generation CAT units were designed to scan a passenger’s identification photo, verifying the passenger’s identity as well as their flight information. The new CAT units, called CAT-2, have the same capabilities, but are also equipped with a camera that captures the passenger’s photo in real time .”
The rollout began earlier, with the TSA exploring biometric technologies and then testing the use of facial recognition scanners at airports, including LAX. Until December 2022. The Washington PostGeoffrey Fowler noted that “The Transportation Security Administration has been quietly testing controversial facial recognition technology to screen passengers at 16 major domestic airports.”
Theoretically, passengers can opt out of regular personal checks. But anyone who flies a lot knows how things often go well when you stand your ground with the TSA—it’s a great way to end up in the back room. Just a few weeks after writing the post, Fowler told PBS, “since my column came out, readers have said they’ve been following it, taking the podium and getting pushback” when they objected to face scans.
Reliability is often mentioned among the reasons for opposing facial recognition scanning.
“The federal government’s 2019 algorithms found that people of black or Asian descent can be up to 100 times less likely to be identified than white people,” Fowler told PBS.
But reliability can be improved if deficiencies are addressed. Just a few years ago, facial recognition often failed when people masked their faces, such as (with little apparent benefit to public health) during a pandemic. “Even the best of the 89 commercial facial recognition algorithms tested had error rates between 5% and 50% in matching digitally applied face masks to photos of the same person without the mask,” the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found. in 2020
In new tests just a few months later, failure rates dropped as the algorithms refocused on eye and nose details not covered by face masks. There is little reason to believe that algorithms cannot be improved to distinguish people’s identities through differences in facial features and skin color.
However, highly reliable facial recognition only reinforces many other concerns about the surveillance state. Improving Big Brother’s abilities only connects us to a more robust Big Brother.
“Facial recognition is a dangerous and invasive surveillance technology that lacks federal safeguards and can spread too easily,” argues Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “TSA should end its facial recognition program as a step toward rolling back the federal government’s use of facial recognition. We must not sit idly by while the infrastructure for mass facial surveillance is created.”
“Identity-based homeland security programs condition our mobility to freely assemble, associate, speak, and exchange ideas with government permission to do so,” adds the Identity Project, which supports the right to travel without document requirements. “Requirements for citizens to ‘show their ID’ have spread from airports to all major forms of long-distance public transport.”
Basically, even if we take the TSA and other agencies at their word that they want to use facial recognition to identify travelers as seamlessly and accurately as possible, they still intend to identify travelers. The whole project is based on the premise that no one should be able to go from place to place anonymously. But it wasn’t that long ago that, as long as you paid for a ticket, you could pretty much travel wherever you wanted with minimal need to reveal your name.
“Air travel in the early 1960s was still pretty carefree: if you had a ticket, you could get on the plane,” Los Angeles Times observed in 2014
“As a general rule, until 1941, U.S. citizens were not required to have a passport to travel abroad,” reports the National Archives.
The assumption that you would need to prove your identity at all is quite a leap before we get to the discussions about technology, reliability and record keeping. There’s probably little short-term chance to revive the days of anonymous travel, but some lawmakers are expressing civil liberties concerns about the TSA’s rush to embrace facial recognition.
“Countries like China and Russia are using facial recognition technology to track their citizens,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio) he objected in January. “Do you believe Joe Biden’s TSA will use it, too?”
Members of the president’s own party also oppose the scheme.
“Increased biometric surveillance of Americans by the government poses a risk to civil liberties and privacy rights,” Sens. Ed Markey (D–Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D–Ore.), Cory Booker (D–NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D– Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) wrote to TSA Administrator David Pekoske last week. “Currently, if a passenger from the US shows up at one of the 16 airports where this technology is being tested, they will be met by a facial ID scanner before they can continue on their flight. Every day, thousands of people are faced with the decision to travel or protect your privacy – a decision that threatens our democracy.”
By the way, even if you think anonymous travel is best left in the past, it’s not clear what danger facial recognition is supposed to solve. A 2021 report by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed that its own earlier facial recognition test found a few fake ones out of tens of millions of scanned faces (23 million in FY 2020 alone).
“Since the program’s inception in 2018, CBP officers at U.S. airports have successfully intercepted seven fraudsters who were denied entry to the United States and identified 285 fraudsters upon arrival in the land foot environment,” the report boasted.
Facial recognition is an increasingly effective technology. But in the hands of the government it is more effective at threatening our privacy and freedom than providing any real benefit.