It’s been in the planning stages for a long time now – the use of facial recognition at airport screening checkpoints. The long term evolution of this process is to eventually use your face as your boarding pass at the passenger boarding bridge as well (but that’s an airline plan – let’s stick with TSA’s plan for now).

A group of bipartisan lawmakers now seem to have an issue with a program that TSA has talked about since before covid and is already in places at 84 airports. The senators want to prohibit the TSA’s deployment of facial recognition technologies in the document check process until “rigorous congressional oversight” occurs (whatever that means). If this “rigorous oversight” is anything like the moronic questioning lawmakers do when grilling hapless souls in Senate hearings, then I don’t see the point. The questions will be for grandstanding purposes only and not achieve anything other than some PR for the politicians on the committee.

Facial recognition has been a long time coming to our industry. Where do I stand on the issue? I’m fine with it as long as it’s voluntary. The current system in place allows an individual to select whether to do the facial recognition, or alternatively, provide their usual identification to the TSA, along with their boarding pass, and proceed as normal.

If facial recognition can speed up the screening process, even by just a 1/2 second or a full second, that adds up (or subtracts really) from the total amount of time people have to spend in a checkpoint. This makes everyone happy (except a threat-actor, aka bad guy, who wants a nice long, jam-packed screening line as a ripe target for a terrorist act). Passengers are happier because they are out of the checkpoint process sooner, airlines are happier because less people are missing flights, and TSA is happier because when passengers are happier, they aren’t as much of a problem to deal with.

The challenge becomes when (and if) TSA requires all passengers to undergo the process. Even though the agency says the photos are deleted immediately after use, who will verify this is happening? Remember the backscatter x-ray machines when they first rolled out? The government initially said the images couldn’t be stored (they could be) – they later reversed themselves and said this function could occur, but they had been turned off in the airport screening domain. So, there are some government trust issues here. Even if the government makes sure the memory functions are shut off, what’s the assurance an individual user or entity won’t turn it back on?

This is where the privacy issues come into play. Although I worked in intelligence when I was in the Coast Guard, and I’d have loved to have updated photos of the people I was collecting information on (rather than just an old driver’s license photo), we still have this civil rights thing here in the U.S. We can’t just randomly scroll through public records looking for people that we have no reasonable suspicion are engaged in criminal activity.

Again, I’m fine with facial recognition, but as long as it’s voluntary. 


By Jeffrey C. Price C.M.

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