By Lori Aratani
The Transportation Security Administration is launching a pilot programme at Reagan National Airport in Virginia that will use facial scanners - rather than humans - to verify travellers' identities.
The programme is part of a long-standing push by the agency to automate the process for traveller verification, but it has taken on new urgency during the pandemic, in which avoiding close encounters are becoming the norm, particularly in places such as airports, where large numbers of unrelated people come together.
"In light of Covid-19, advanced health and safety precautions have become a top priority and part of the new normal for TSA," Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement that accompanied the announcement. "As a result, we are exploring rapid testing and deployment of this touchless, self-service technology."
But the use of facial scans is controversial and has raised concerns among lawmakers, privacy advocates and civil rights groups. They said that even during a pandemic, it is important to make sure that measures are put into place to ensure the technology is used properly and that efforts are made to safeguard any data that is collected.
"While I am glad that TSA is developing security technologies to reduce checkpoint interaction while the nation is still in a pandemic, it is clear that facial recognition technology has not been fully developed yet and still faces privacy and civil liberties questions," said Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which has held several hearings on the use of biometrics.
"I continue to have concerns that facial recognition technologies have known inherent racial biases and are unable to accurately and consistently process people of colour," Thompson said. "It is apparent that facial recognition camera systems malfunction too often to be effective in the field - and these malfunctions are often due to skin colour and age."
Andrew Ferguson, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said through email: "The path to the surveillance state is paved with good intentions. It is also paved with cynical uses of real emergencies to shift power to the government. It is unclear which path the TSA is on."
The TSA piloted a similar system last fall at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
At National, the new system is at Terminal B, the checkpoint for Gates 10 through 22, and is open to those enrolled in TSA's Pre-check program.
Instead of handing their identification to a TSA officer, passengers who agree to participate will be directed to insert their identification into a machine. The same unit will take a picture of the traveller and compare it with the image on the person's ID. For now, a TSA officer will verify that the images match, but eventually, travellers will be able to complete the entire process on their own, Pekoske said.
TSA officials said the photographs taken are used only to verify travellers' identity and are not saved.
Pekoske said TSA's ultimate goal is to provide a "safer checkpoint experience while adding significant security benefits."
A study released this month by the Government Accountability Office examined the agencies' use of facial recognition programs to verify the identity of travellers. In some instances, the GAO found that travellers were not always told scans were optional, and in some cases, those who opted out were told they might have to undergo additional security measures or be barred from boarding their flights.
The GAO report also examined the TSA's use of facial scans, including whether the agency complied with privacy protection principles. During a one-hour observation of the 30-day pilot at McCarran Airport last fall, nine of the 10 travellers who opted to take part in the program had their images successfully captured and matched. The system was unable to match one person because of damage to his ID. (The TSA conducted a separate evaluation of the program and used that information in developing the one at National.) The GAO also looked at pilot programs at Los Angeles International and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International airports.
The GAO said given the limited nature of the tests, it was too early to fully assess whether the agency complied with privacy protection principles.