Lawmakers seek pause on TSA’s use of facial biometrics in FAA bill

A proposed amendment to the must-pass Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that would freeze the deployment of new facial biometrics at airports has the backing of more than a dozen bipartisan senators. 

In a May 2 letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 14 senators — seven Democrats, six Republicans and one Independent — called for the chamber’s leaders to support legislation that would restrict the Transportation Security Administration’s use of facial recognition technology as part of the security screening process. 

TSA has been deploying new security screeners that use facial recognition technology to match real-time photos of travelers against their government-issued photo IDs. The technology has been rolled out at more than 80 airports, with TSA planning to deploy facial biometrics to more than 400 airports in the coming years.

TSA officials noted last month that the agency’s facial biometrics policy — which allows passengers to opt-out of receiving facial scans without any negative repercussions — was extended to all agencies’ current and future use of the technology as part of the Office of Management and Budget’s governmentwide guidance on safely using artificial intelligence. 

Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and John Kennedy, R-La., who led the letter, previously introduced a bill in November 2023 to bar TSA from using facial recognition over concerns about data privacy. Merkley and Kennedy, along with Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., are co-leading the amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill.

A spokesperson for Merkley noted to Nextgov/FCW that the filed amendment — which is still being considered for a vote — differs from the senators’ proposed bill in that it “is not a ban but a freeze on TSA’s facial recognition regime from expanding to new airports while Congress scrutinizes the program.” 

They noted that, if the amendments passes, airports currently using facial biometrics in their screening processes would continue to do so during the congressional review period. 

Lawmakers who signed the letter raised concerns about the slippery slope caused by the unfettered deployment of facial biometrics without congressional oversight, warning that the technology “poses significant threats to our privacy and civil liberties.”

“The potential for misuse of this technology extends far beyond airport security checkpoints,” they wrote. “Once Americans become accustomed to government facial recognition scans, it will be that much easier for the government to scan citizens’ faces everywhere, from entry into government buildings, to passive surveillance on public property like parks, schools and sidewalks.”

Officials with TSA and the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate previously told Nextgov/FCW about the steps they take to protect passengers’ privacy and ensure the accuracy of facial biometric matches, including automatically deleting images after a positive match has been made and conducting limited testing to ensure the technology is working correctly.

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