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TSA launches new facial recognition test in Vegas airport

In this image, a TSA officer sits and speaks to a passenger in a white shirt.
A TSA agent checks in passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, August 24, 2016. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The Transportation Security Administration is preparing to launch its 4th round of facial recognition testing at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, as part of the agency's multi-year plan to pilot using passengers' biometric data at security checkpoints.

The big picture: The federal government sees the tests as an effort to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of airport screening. But some privacy and surveillance analysts at the ACLU and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit watchdog organization, raise concerns that the technology could ultimately turn airports into police checkpoints.

Details: The facial recognition test at McCarran will last 30 days, according to TSA media manager Dani Bennett. Only travelers in the TSA Precheck lane will be able to volunteer. Through a Credential Authentication Technology device equipped with a camera (CAT-C), passengers' live facial images will be captured and verified against their IDs or usual documentation.

  • Passengers' data will be collected by the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate and deleted after 180 days, at the latest.
  • A TSA agent will manually verify passenger identities against travel documents after the facial matching result is recorded, regardless of the match results.

Between the lines: "CBP and TSA have never shown what type of training materials they use to make sure agents don't rely improperly on what face recognition systems say," Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at POGO's Constitution Project said. "If I was an agent and a computer system told me it was a mismatch, I'd probably get suspicious."

Background: TSA started "testing biometrics solutions for identity verification purposes in 2015," according to its website.

  • In October 2017, the agency tested Customs and Border Protection's facial recognition technology at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
  • In 2018, TSA tested facial recognition for verifying boarding passes and enhanced body scanners at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Its test at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is ongoing.

What else they're saying: Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said that it "wouldn’t be surprising" if the TSA's facial recognition or CAT-C checkpoints were used for general law enforcement purposes. "We don’t think that they should or legally can," he added.

  • "If TSA has a built up face recognition system that scans everyone in airports, it's only a matter of time before law enforcement starts demanding they send them logs of travels," Laperruque said. "What will the TSA do when the FBI asks to tap into this system for surveillance purposes?"

Go deeper: House Democrats ask DHS to address use of facial recognition on U.S. citizens