Skip links

TSA to expand facial recognition across America

America’s Transport Security Administration, better known as the TSA, has been testing facial recognition software to automatically screen passengers flying across the country in 16 airports. And now it’s looking into rolling it out nationwide next year.

Flyers will be able to pass through security checkpoints by scanning a copy of a government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license stored on their mobile phones, and standing in front of a camera system. The equipment will snap a live photo of their face and check whether it matches with the one captured on their ID.

The pilot program, testing the Credential Authentication Technology 2 (CAT-2) system, aims to reduce security screening wait times by automating the process so TSA agents do not need to manually check IDs. Staff are still on standby, however, for final verification. 

Experts are concerned the technology might be risky to use, considering previous research has shown facial recognition algorithms can be less accurate when identifying women and people with darker skin. Travelers could be unfairly singled out for further checks due to the technology’s inaccuracies.

“TSA is exploring the use of one to one and one to few facial identification to automate identity verification at airport checkpoints and modernize the screening experience for passengers,” a spokesperson from the agency told The Register in a statement.

“Biometric technology has the potential to enhance security effectiveness, improve operational efficiency, and yield a more streamlined passenger experience at the TSA checkpoint. TSA recognizes that biometric solutions must be highly usable for all passengers and operators, considering the diversity of the traveling public.”

Jason Lim, a TSA official helping to run the CAT-2 pilot program, told the Washington Post, that the technology isn’t mandatory. “Those who do not feel comfortable will still have to present their ID — but they can tell the officer that they do not want their photo taken, and the officer will turn off the live camera,” he said. 

When faced with these protocols, however, most travelers will probably tend to stick to the automated screening system if they believe the process is quicker. 

Privacy experts have raised concerns that the creation of facial recognition databases increases the risk of the sensitive information being accidentally leaked or unlawfully accessed by bad actors. 

TSA, however, said the live photos and digital IDs analyzed by the CAT-2 units will not be kept. But it will encrypt the data and pass it to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate to assess. The DHS will delete the images within two years.

“Outside of the evaluation periods during normal operations, each passenger’s live photo and the personally identifiable information collected from their digital ID will be overwritten when the next passenger is scanned,” the agency said.

The TSA’s facial recognition system is currently being trialed at 16 domestic airports, including some of the busiest hubs like the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and Denver International Airport. The agency hopes to roll it out to US airports next year.

Lim called the technology a “security enhancement” and claimed it was better at authenticating passengers’ identities than human agents manually inspecting documents. 

“We are so far very satisfied with the performance of the machine’s ability to conduct facial recognition accurately,” he said.

The TSA, however, has yet to prove the performance of its CAT-2 systems and hasn’t released any data of the machine’s rate of true negative or false positive face matches. 

“These pilots are entirely voluntary and there has not been a determination to release data at this point, nor to implement this operationally beyond the pilot stage. While we are informed the preliminary results are encouraging, TSA continues to monitor these pilots to ensure there is no inherent bias in the technology,” the spokesperson told us. ®