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


A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to halt the expansion of facial recognition technology at airports in the United States and restrict its use as part of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill 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 are asking the TSA to make clear that travelers can opt out of airports where it exists. In use.

With a deadline set for Friday to renew the aviation law, the proposal is among the amendments likely to receive a vote before the bill is passed. It pits privacy advocates in both parties against consumer and industry groups that argue the technology has the potential to dramatically reduce wait times at airports and increase convenience and safety.

Under a plan from the Transportation Security Administration, the government will expand facial recognition technology to more than 430 airports, from 25, as part of efforts to speed up the check-in process and improve security. Using iPad-mounted kiosks, Passenger photos are taken and matched to a photocopy of the ID card, eliminating the need for workers to perform such matching with their eyes.

Merkley said he became concerned about the technology after encountering it at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport near Washington, D.C. Although facial scanning is optional, many passengers feel pressure to comply.

The senator often insists on his right to refuse a facial scan, but he said some airport security workers have refused. He said that until recently, there was no sign clearly indicating that passengers were not required to scan their faces at security checkpoints.

“Because I made such a big fuss about this, they put out a little postcard saying this is optional, but what you really see is an iPad that says ‘Follow instructions’ or ‘Follow orders,’” Merkley said. “So people don’t think they have that option. They’re afraid they’ll get caught. People are nervous.”

The U.S. Travel Association sounded the alarm over the amendment, arguing that it would create “A dangerous and worrying scenario for travelers“.

Jeff Freeman, the association’s president and CEO, said the proposal to crack down on facial recognition technology at airports is “dangerous, expensive, and threatens to wreak havoc on America’s airports.”

“Eliminating the use of biometrics — like facial scanning — would set America back decades, and only ill-informed members of Congress would be to blame,” he said.

If the facial recognition program is not expanded, travel groups say, 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 technology could result in national security risks.

Mr. Merkley rejected the criticism, noting that his amendment would only preserve the status quo.

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

Mr. Merkley, who as an Oregon state lawmaker sought to limit the use of red-light cameras and cellphone tracking, said his focus on facial recognition at airports stems from a number of civil liberties concerns. He said no American should be forced to take photos of themselves without their consent, adding that he was concerned that the government was building an ever-growing database of Americans’ faces that could be abused. He also said the technology is inaccurate and has unacceptable error rates.

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

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

“This technology poses significant threats to our privacy and civil liberties, and Congress must prohibit the development and deployment of TSA facial recognition tools until vigorous 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.

Schumer included the amendment among the list of proposals that should receive a vote before the bill is passed, but he did not take a position on it.

Mr Kennedy said he was particularly concerned that government employees could misuse data after millions of faces were scanned every day. “Unless Congress reins in this program through our amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, I fear bureaucrats will begin seizing and storing the biometrics of millions of travelers without explicit permission,” he said in a statement.

Alexa C. Lopez, a TSA spokeswoman, said the images were not stored or archived after a positive identity match, “except in a limited test environment to evaluate the effectiveness of the technology.” She also said the agency would not use the technology for surveillance or any law enforcement purposes.

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

“They’re promoting this as something that makes travel safer or more efficient, but there’s actually no data or evidence for that,” she said. “There are real implications for travelers’ privacy and how their data is used.”



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