Facial recognition technology has come a long way in recent years, spurred in equal parts by convenience and the priorities of government snoops. Now if you Planning a long haul by plane, you can expect to stare into a camera as a computer algorithm scans your features to make sure you’re not an imposter. The TSA uses facial recognition technology at airports as a way to ensure travelers are who they claim to be and speed up security lines. This, perhaps, is an improvement for impatient travelers, but more than that it is not satisfactory for the security state.
“The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has deployed next-generation credential authentication technology (CAT) to verify passenger identities at Denver International Airport,” TSA announced last November. “The first generation CAT units were designed to scan a traveler’s photo identification, confirming the traveler’s identity as well as confirming their flight details. The new CAT units, referred to as CAT-2, have the same capabilities, but are equipped with a camera that captures a traveler’s Captures real-time photos.”
The rollout began earlier, with the TSA exploring biometric technologies and then testing the use of facial recognition scanners at airports including LAX. By December 2022, The Washington PostIts Geoffrey Fowler notes “The Transportation Security Administration is quietly testing controversial facial recognition technology for passenger screening at 16 major domestic airports.”
In theory, travelers can opt out of regular ID checks. But anyone who flies knows how much better things often are when you stand up for your rights with the TSA—it’s a great way to end up in the back room. A few weeks after writing the rollout, Fowler told PBS: “Since my column came out, readers have said they’ve followed it, stepped up to the podium and gotten pushback” when they objected to face scans.
Among the reasons for objecting to facial recognition scans, reliability is often cited.
“The federal government’s algorithm from 2019 found that people of black or Asian descent were 100 times less likely to be correctly identified than white men,” Fowler pointed out to PBS.
But reliability can be improved as errors are resolved. Just a few years ago, face recognition was often reduced when people masked their faces during pandemics (for little apparent public health benefit). The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found, “Even the best of 89 commercial facial recognition algorithms tested had an error rate between 5% and 50% of matching digitally applied masks to photos of the same person without a mask” in 2020.
In new tests a few months later, the failure rate dropped because the algorithm focused on eye and nose details not covered by the mask. There is little reason to believe that algorithms cannot be refined to distinguish human identity through differences in facial features and skin color.
That said, highly reliable facial recognition only exacerbates many other concerns about the surveillance state. Improving Big Brother’s skills connects us to a more powerful Big Brother.
“Facial recognition is a dangerous and invasive surveillance technology that lacks federal protections and could be expanded too easily,” objected Jeremy Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The TSA should end its facial recognition program as a step toward backing government use of facial recognition. We should not sit idly by while the infrastructure for mass surveillance is built.”
“Identity-based domestic security programs condition our mobility to freely assemble, associate, speak, and exchange ideas with the government’s permission to do so,” adds the Identity Project, which supports the right to travel without document requirements. “The demand for citizens to ‘show their ID’ has spread from airports to all major forms of long-distance public transport.”
Fundamentally, even if we take the TSA and other agencies at their word that they want to use facial recognition to identify travelers as seamlessly and accurately as possible, they still want to identify travelers. The whole project is based on the premise that no one can move from place to place anonymously. But it wasn’t that long ago that, as long as you paid your fare, you could travel anywhere you were basically satisfied with the minimal need to reveal your name.
“Airline travel in the early 1960s was still fairly carefree: if you had a ticket, you could get on the plane,” Los Angeles Times Observed in 2014.
“As a general rule, until 1941, U.S. citizens did not need a passport to travel abroad,” reports the National Archives.
The idea that you need to prove your identity before discussing technology, reliability and record keeping is quite a leap. Reviving the days of anonymous travel likely has little short-term potential, but some lawmakers are expressing civil libertarian concerns about the TSA’s rush to embrace facial recognition.
“Countries like China and Russia use facial recognition technology to track their citizens,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). objection In January. “Do you trust Joe Biden’s TSA to use it too?”
Members of the President’s own party also opposed the project.
“Increasing biometric surveillance of Americans by the government represents a risk to civil liberties and privacy rights,” said Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Markley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D- Oren)-Mass.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote to TSA Administrator David Pekosk last week. “Currently if a U.S. traveler checks in with this technology at one of 16 airports, they will be met with a facial recognition scanner before boarding their flight. Every day thousands of people are faced with the decision to protect their privacy or travel—a decision that threatens our democracy. under threat.”
Incidentally, even if you think anonymous travel is best left in the past, it’s not clear what dangers facial recognition will defeat. A 2021 US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) report revealed that its own prior facial recognition tests picked up a few fakes out of hundreds of millions of scanned faces (23 million in fiscal year 2020 alone).
“Since the program’s inception, in 2018, CBP officers at U.S. airports have successfully apprehended seven fraudsters who were denied entry to the United States and identified 285 fraudsters upon arrival in a ground passenger environment,” the report boasts.
Facial recognition is an increasingly effective technology. But in government hands it is more effective at threatening our privacy and freedom than providing any real benefits.