Senators Seek to Curb Facial Recognition at Airports, Citing Privacy Concerns

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing to add language to the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration that would halt expansion of the technology.

New York Times

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing to halt the expansion of facial recognition technology at airports in the United States and restrict its use as part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that is making its way through Congress.

Citing privacy concerns, Senators Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, and John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, are proposing to block the expansion of the technology until 2027 and require the Transportation Security Administration to make clear that passengers can opt out at airports where it is in use.

With a Friday deadline for renewing the aviation law, the proposal is among the amendments likely to get a vote before the bill can pass. It has pit privacy advocates in both parties against consumer and industry groups that argue that the technology has the potential to vastly cut down on wait times at airports and increase convenience and safety.

Under a plan from the Transportation Security Administration, the government would expand facial recognition technology to more than 430 airports, from 25, as part of an effort to speed up the check-in process and improve security. Using kiosks with iPads affixed to them, passengers have their photographs taken and matched to an image from an ID, eliminating the need for workers to make such a match with their eyes.

Mr. Merkley said he had grown concerned about the technology after encountering it at Ronald Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C. While a facial scan is optional, many passengers feel pressured to comply, he said.

The senator often insists on his right to decline the facial scan, but he said some airport security workers pushed back. Until recently, he said, there was no sign clearly indicating that passengers were not obligated to have their faces scanned at security checkpoints.

“Because I made such a fuss over it, they put a little postcard that says this is optional, but what you really see is an iPad that says, ‘Follow instructions’ or ‘Follow the orders,’” Mr. Merkley said. “So people just do not believe they have this option. They’re afraid of getting arrested. People are nervous.”

The U.S. Travel Association is raising alarm about the amendment, arguing that it would create a “severe and troubling scenario for travelers.”

Geoff Freeman, the association’s president and chief executive, said the proposal to crack down on facial recognition technology at airports was “dangerous, costly and threatens to create chaos at America’s airports.”

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“Eliminating the use of biometrics — such as facial scans — will set America back by decades,” he said, “and only misinformed members of Congress are to blame.”

If facial recognition software is not expanded, the travel lobby says, passengers will end up waiting an additional 120 million hours in security lines each year. The U.S. Travel Association also says failure to use the technology could result in national security risks.

Mr. Merkley rejected the criticism, pointing out that his amendment would merely preserve the status quo.

“How does this create a delay? We’re just freezing in place what’s there right now,” he said. “We think it’s an important issue for Congress to wrestle with.”

Mr. Merkley, who as a state legislator in Oregon sought to curb the use of red-light cameras and cellphone tracking, said his focus on facial recognition at airports stemmed from a number of civil liberties concerns. No Americans should be forced to have their photograph taken without their consent, he said, adding that he was worried about the government building an ever-increasing database of Americans’ faces that could be misused. He also argued that the technology was inaccurate and had unacceptable error rates.

“I come from rural Oregon, so I’ve always had a bit of concern about government having too much ability to track individuals,” Mr. Merkley said.

Mr. Merkley and Mr. Kennedy were among 14 senators who recently sent a letter to Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, outlining their concerns.

“This technology poses significant threats to our privacy and civil liberties, and Congress should prohibit T.S.A.’s development and deployment of facial recognition tools until rigorous congressional oversight occurs,” the letter said. It was signed by a mix of lawmakers from both parties, including some prominent liberals and Republicans known for their work on civil liberties issues.

Mr. Schumer included the amendment on a list of proposals that should get a vote before the bill passes, but he has not taken a position on it.

Mr. Kennedy said he was particularly concerned that government workers could potentially abuse the data after scanning millions of faces each day. “Unless Congress reins in this program through our amendment to the F.A.A. reauthorization bill, I fear bureaucrats will start seizing and hoarding the biometrics of millions of travelers without explicit permission,” he said in a statement.

Alexa C. Lopez, a T.S.A. spokeswoman, said photographs were not stored or saved after a positive ID match, “except in a limited testing environment for evaluation of the effectiveness of the technology.” She also said the agency would not use the technology for surveillance or any law enforcement purpose.

Lisa Gilbert, the executive vice president of the progressive group Public Citizen, has been pushing for the amendment.

“They’re touting this as something that sort of makes traveling safer or more efficient, but there’s actually no data or proof to that,” she said. “And there are real ramifications for travelers’ privacy and how their data is used.”