In Midst of Busy Travel Season, Merkley, Kennedy, Colleagues Sound Alarm on TSA Collection of Facial Biometric Data

Senators introduce bipartisan legislation to ban collection of biometric data at U.S. airports

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley joined forces with Senators John Kennedy (R-LA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to introduce the bipartisan Traveler Privacy Protection Act. This new legislation would empower travelers in the United States with control over their privacy by banning the use of facial recognition technology and the collection of facial biometric data by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in U.S. airports.

The TSA has been conducting facial recognition scans on thousands of Americans daily, representing the largest U.S. effort to implement a nationwide facial recognition system for domestic travelers.

“The TSA program is a precursor to a full-blown national surveillance state,” said Senator Merkley. “Nothing could be more damaging to our national values of privacy and freedom. No government should be trusted with this power.”

“Every day, TSA scans thousands of Americans’ faces without their permission and without making it clear that travelers can opt out of the invasive screening,” said Senator Kennedy. “The Traveler Privacy Protection Act would protect every American from Big Brother’s intrusion by ending the facial recognition program.”

“Passengers should not have to choose between safety and privacy when they travel. Despite our repeated calls for TSA to halt its unacceptable use of facial recognition technologies, the agency has continued to expand its use across the country,” said Senator Markey. “I am glad to partner with Senators Merkley and Kennedy on the Traveler Privacy Protection Act to halt TSA’s use of this invasive technology. Travelers should be able to fly without checking their right to privacy in alongside their luggage.”

“I am concerned that we have no clue where this data is going, and thousands of Americans every day are not aware of their option to decline to have their photo taken by a government agency every time they go to the airport,” Senator Marshall said. “The potential for these images to be used to violate American’s civil liberties is greatly concerning. Our important bipartisan legislation would put a halt to the expansion of this facial recognition program and involve Congress in the future use of it. I’m proud to work with Senators Merkley and Kennedy to protect Americans and force transparency from the TSA.”

This holiday travel season is expected to be among the busiest ever. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the TSA announced 2.9 million individuals were screened at airports across the country. We only get one face, and travelers are currently left without the knowledge they need to opt out of handing their sensitive biometric data over to the government.

For decades, Americans have flown safely and securely using traditional identity verification methods. Despite bipartisan outcry over the risks facial recognition scans pose to our ability to travel freely, the TSA announced this summer its plan to implement facial recognition scans at over 430 U.S. airports within the next several years.

The bipartisan Traveler Privacy Protection Act would prevent the TSA from using airports as a site to collect Americans’ sensitive facial biometric data by:

  • Repealing existing authorization for TSA to explore facial recognition technology and require explicit congressional authorization for future use.
  • Immediately banning the Transportation Security Administration from expanding its use of facial recognition.
  • Requiring TSA to end its facial recognition program and dispose of facial biometrics data within 3 months.

The Traveler Privacy Protection Act is supported by the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and Public Citizen.

“The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) applauds the introduction of the Traveler Privacy Protection Act and its prohibition on TSA’s use of facial recognition technology. The privacy risks and discriminatory impact of facial recognition are real, and the government’s use of our faces as IDs poses a serious threat to our democracy. The TSA should not be allowed to unilaterally subject millions of travelers to this dangerous technology,” said Jeramie Scott, Senior Counsel and Director of EPIC’s Project on Surveillance Oversight.

“Facial recognition and facial matching technology poses unnecessary and unacceptable risks for civil rights and civil liberties. It many situations, it has been demonstrated to be less accurate for people of color and women, and it threatens to enable to mass tracking and incursions into our privacy. The Traveler Privacy Protection Act of 2023 is a simple, crucial step to protecting our rights,” said Cody Venzke, Senior Policy Counsel at the ACLU.

Senator Merkley has been an outspoken voice and longtime leader sounding the alarm on TSA’s use of facial recognition technology. Previous actions including leading colleagues in a letter to TSA calling for the Administration’s immediate halt of using facial recognition technologies, and documenting his own experience “opting-out” of this optional program traveling to and from his office in D.C. and his home state of Oregon. 

Bill text can be found here.

A bill summary can be found here.