Bipartisan senators push for facial recognition restrictions in airports

A bipartisan group of senators called on the chamber’s leaders to use the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill to restrict the use of facial recognition technology at airports throughout the country.

In a letter on Thursday to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), 14 senators cited concerns about potential violations of people’s privacy and civil liberties, and they called for additional congressional oversight before the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expands the technology.

“This technology poses significant threats to our privacy and civil liberties, and Congress should prohibit TSA’s development and deployment of facial recognition tools until rigorous congressional oversight occurs,” the senators wrote in their letter, which was led by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Kennedy (R-La.) and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).

The TSA currently uses the facial recognition technology at 84 airports with the stated goal of expanding to more than 400 airports. Travelers at those airports have the option of using the TSA scanners to either place their passport photo on a reader or insert their IDs into a machine, and then look into a camera to have their face scanned. The machine then compares the two images to verify the traveler’s identity before a TSA officer signs off on the verification.

The photos taken during the facial recognition scan “are not stored or saved after a positive ID match has been made, except in a limited testing environment for evaluation of the effectiveness of the technology,” the TSA said on its website.

While the agency touts the technology as “a significant security enhancement” that “improves traveler convenience,” the senators expressed concern about potential future applications of such technology.

“The potential for misuse of this technology extends far beyond airport security checkpoints. Once Americans become accustomed to government facial recognition scans, it will be that much easier for the government to scan citizens’ faces everywhere, from entry into government buildings, to passive surveillance on public property like parks, schools, and sidewalks,” they wrote.

A TSA spokesperson criticized the senators’ push in a statement.

“The amendment would halt facial recognition technology at security checkpoints, which has proven to improve security effectiveness, efficiency, and the passenger experience. Additionally, the amendment calls our technology deployments pilots, but they are operational assessments,” the spokesperson said.

The senators noted that while the technology is currently optional for travelers at airports, they cited the TSA administrator’s remarks last April that “we will get to the point where we will require biometrics across the board.”

The senators urged Schumer and McConnell to use the FAA reauthorization — a must-pass bill this Congress — to restrict the TSA development of this technology.

“The scope of the government’s use of facial recognition on Americans will expand exponentially under TSA’s plans, with little to no public discourse or congressional oversight,” they wrote.

“The FAA re-authorization bill is a key opportunity to provide needed oversight of TSA’s facial recognition program,” the senators continued. “Should Congress delay, TSA’s facial recognition infrastructure will soon be in place at hundreds of cities across America, and it will be that much more difficult to rein in facial recognition surveillance by the federal government.”

The Hill reached out to Schumer and McConnell for a response.

This story was updated at 7:38 p.m. EST

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