TSA Expands Facial Recognition to Automate Bag Drop, ID Verification, and Flight Boarding

The TSA began testing facial recognition at select airports for international travelers and now plans to expand the biometric process.

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The TSA released its proposal to expand facial recognition on Monday. The program outlines the administration’s intended proliferation of facial recognition across U.S. airports later this month between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Delta Air Lines, the TSA, and Customs and Border Protection. They will collaborate to launch the world’s first biometric terminal using facial recognition to automate the entire travel experience, from self-service bag drop to ID verification and boarding an airplane.

Its “Biometrics Roadmap for Aviation Security and the Passenger Experience” is an effort to increase security, travel efficiency, and convenience. According to the TSA, the plan is rooted in working with the CBP agency using biometrics on international travelers; enhancing the travel experience for TSA Pre members via facial recognition; expanding biometrics to additional domestic travelers; and developing a cohesive infrastructure to actually process and support the requisite biometric technology and data.

“With the threat to aviation evolving every day, developing the next generation of security technology with our industry partners is critically important,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “By expanding our use of biometrics, TSA secures its position as a global leader in aviation security and advances global transportation security standards.” 

Biometrics are essentially any metrics related to physical human characteristics that can be used to identify them. These could include techniques as old as taking someone’s fingerprints and matching them, to the more advanced retina scans and the contemporary high-tech facial recognition software we’re seeing today.

Currently, the TSA mainly relies on visually identifying travelers and verifying passports. Retina scans and fingerprint matching are slowly but surely expanding into select airports. Facial recognition seems to be the next logical step in terms of tech advancement and those in charge of security looking to move forward. For travelers, of course, the added convenience of a more speedy airport experience could make the biometric process a favorable alternative to current airport procedures.

In case you’re skeptical that this will reach actual implementation, the TSA has already started testing facial recognition. Last year, the administration worked with CBP at John F. Kennedy International Airport to test biometrics on international travelers. This was expanded to Los Angeles International Airport earlier this year. The CBP’s technology can match faces to photos in government databases, such as images from visa applications or passports, to both confirm identities and lessen the need for physical documentation. 

The TSA began taking fingerprints of TSA Pre members at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Denver International Airport in 2017. The system basically matches the fingerprints TSA Pre members provided to the agency with those taken at security checkpoints, thereby quickly confirming that travelers are who they say they are. As of last month, anyone who applies for a TSA Pre membership or decides to renew it is required to provide the administration with a photo. This will allow the TSA to test its new facial recognition system at select airports across the country, once the number of enrolled participants is big enough to sensibly do so. 

“By testing biometrics technology in the airport environment, TSA hopes to increase security effectiveness and stay ahead of the threat,” said Pekoske. “We will continue to leverage our partnerships to deliver enhanced capabilities to checkpoint lanes throughout the country.” 

In an era where technology often surpasses the legislative frameworks in place to properly assess how to use it before implementation, facial recognition is a big topic of discussion. It was only recently that the American Civil Liberties Union spoke out against unmanned aerial vehicles at civil demonstrations, as the fear of facial recognition software and its potential to be used against citizens is now no longer entirely unfounded. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see how the TSA’s new biometric expansion will affect travelers and their notions of civil liberties and security. Stay tuned.