Face recognition over stopping threats

The TSA will test new software designed to determine people’s identities, instead of investing in better security measures

The author is a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

The Transportation Security Administration is planning to test a face-recognition system that could be used on all domestic U.S. fliers, according to a document the agency recently released. That would represent a significant expansion of face recognition in daily life.

In the test, which will occur at McCarran airport in Las Vegas, passengers entering the TSA security area will be photographed and a face-recognition algorithm applied in an attempt to tell whether they match the photograph on their IDs. The system adds face recognition to a technology that the TSA has been working on for years that scans a passenger’s driver’s license or other ID document and attempts to automatically determine whether it is authentic.

If the TSA decides that the system works well, we can assume the agency will use it to replace human document checkers throughout the domestic aviation system. If widely deployed, the TSA’s program would normalize the technology, inevitably be subject to mission creep, and expose people to the judgments of unreliable and biased algorithms.

For purposes of this test, the TSA says it will run the system only on passengers who volunteer to participate. Names and identification numbers will be obfuscated before the data is transferred for analysis, the agency says, and the data will be deleted within 180 days.

But the real question is what data will be collected and how will it be handled if this technology moves beyond tests? Will passengers be able to opt out? Will the agency want to collect and store passengers’ photographs to improve the training of their face recognition algorithms? Will passengers’ photos be run against photographic watch lists, exposing them to the risk of being misidentified as a terrorist or other criminal?

And what are the implications of introducing a technology for the automated checking of IDs? Like many airport security measures, such technology may expand beyond the airport and into daily life. When ID checks become cheap and easily scalable they will inevitably be overused, as we have seen happen with other surveillance technologies.

Finally, one of the biggest problems with this use of face recognition is that it represents an ever-growing investment by the TSA in identity-based security—security based on knowing more and more information about people and trying to use that information to assess their “risk to aviation.” The TSA should instead focus on making sure that nobody—no matter who they are—can bring guns or explosives onto aircraft. Face recognition is an investment that is bad for security and is likely to have bad side effects on our society to boot.