From dumping out water bottles to picking easy to slip off shoes, most air travelers have grown accustomed to the regulatory and bureaucratic dance that is navigating major airports. Increasingly, however, travelers may soon encounter a new accessory en route to their destination: a facial recognition scan.
Private airliners, from Delta to American, have experimented with some form of optional facial recognition services for flight check ins for years, as has The Transportation Security Administration which currently offers the service for security screenings at 16 U.S. airports. Travelers who opt to use the TSA’s service—formally referred to as Credential Authentication Technology with Camera—will submit photos to a facial recognition enabled kiosk in place of the human agent identification check passengers undergo immediately before they pass through security screening.
In a nutshell, travelers using the service will insert their government issued ID and then have the camera scan their face for around five seconds to verify they are who they say they are. In its early phase, human agents still stand by to double check the system’s work.
Proponents of the program, like TSA Program Analyst Jason Lim, argue the system both speeds up wait time for consumers and is simultaneously more accurate than a human agent. In other words, according to the TSA, facial recognition in airports is a win-win.
“This technology is definitely a security enhancement,” Lim said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We are so far very satisfied with the performance of the machine’s ability to conduct facial recognition accurately.”
Like many recent biometric identification programs, The Post notes, the TSA’s facial recognition system saw a bump up in usage as customers looked for more contactless options during the covid-19 pandemic.
Concerns over algorithmic racial bias lie at the heat of privacy debates surrounding facial recognition, both in airports and in wider environments. For years researchers have shown time and time again that facial recognition detection systems struggle to identify black and brown people with the same level of accuracy as white faces. While some of the industry’s top developers have pointed to new reports suggesting that accuracy gap is closing, privacy experts like Nate Wessler, the American Civil Liberty Union’s Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project warn that those figures only tell part of the story.
Speaking with Gizmodo last year, Wessler said it was unlikely facial recognition services in imperfect environments would be able to replicate the same levels of accuracy seen in some high profile facial recognition tests.
“These are probabilistic algorithms that are making their best guess based on the quality of the photo that’s uploaded and what’s in the database and how the algorithm was trained,” Wessler said.
There are other accuracy considerations aside from racial bias as well. What happens, for example, if a potential traveler has grown a hearty pandemic era beard but their driver’s license is clean shaven? Similarly what happens if any other number of facial augmentation occurs that weren’t present in the original photo? TSA officials speaking with The Post said variations like those would have negligible effects on detection rate, however, hard data on those failure rates remains hard to come by.
For now, it’s true facial recognition at airports are optional and sold as a “convenience” product. That distinction is of little recourse for some concerned privacy experts like Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn who warned The Post that many biometric identification programs, “are only optional in the introductory phase.”
“Over time we see them becoming standardized and nationalized and eventually compulsory,” Cahn added. “There is no place more coercive to ask people for their consent than an airport.”
In many ways, airports are a dream come true for security companies hoping to persuade consumers to fork over their biometric data. Excruciatingly long lines at airports, both for check in and security, can be almost comically maddening and stressful, particularly during the mad rush of holiday seasons.
Ironically, a decent chunk of that glut (shoes off please) trickled downstream of hyper strict security protocols implemented by the TSA in response to outlier security situations. With facial recognition, the TSA and its private industry partners offer a line cutting “convenience” service to solve a problem, essentially of their own creation. All that can disappear, however, if travelers simply relinquish their hold on face, iris, and other biometric data. Where that data will ultimately end up down the line, well that remains to be seen.
Regardless of whether you welcome facial recognition with open arms or recoil at its mere suggestion, you can continue clicking through to see if your local airport may be one of the 16 looking into the tech.