US Senators John Kennedy (R-LA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday to end involuntary facial recognition screening at airports. The Traveler Privacy Protection Act would block the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from continuing or expanding its facial recognition tech program. It would also require the government agency to explicitly receive congressional permission to renew it, and it would have to dispose of all biometric data within three months.
Senator Merkley described the TSA’s biometric collection practices as the first steps toward an Orwellian nightmare. “The TSA program is a precursor to a full-blown national surveillance state,” Merkley wrote in a news release. “Nothing could be more damaging to our national values of privacy and freedom. No government should be trusted with this power.” Other Senators supporting the bill include Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
The TSA began testing facial recognition at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in 2018. The agency’s pitch to travelers framed it as an exciting new high-tech feature, promising a “biometrically-enabled curb-to-gate passenger experience.” The TSA said this summer it planned to expand the program to over 430 US airports within the next few years.
I was back at Washington National Airport this month, and @TSA was up to their old tricks—making it unclear that you ARE able to opt out of using facial recognition technology. I’ll keep holding them accountable. pic.twitter.com/absGn5v1Q3
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) September 25, 2023
The program at least technically allows travelers to opt-out, but that process isn’t always transparent in practice. Merkley posted the video above to X in September, demonstrating how agents guided travelers to the facial scanner without mentioning that it’s optional. No signs near the booths said it was optional or explicitly mentioned the gathering of facial data, either. The booths were arranged so that flyers would have difficulty entering their driver’s license or ID (required) without stepping in front of the facial scanner.
Advocacy groups supporting the bill include the ACLU, Electronic Privacy Information Center and Public Citizen. “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,” wrote Jeramie Scott, Senior Counsel and Director of EPIC’s Project on Surveillance Oversight, in Markley’s press release. “The TSA should not be allowed to unilaterally subject millions of travelers to this dangerous technology.”
“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,” Sen. Kennedy wrote in a separate news release. “The Traveler Privacy Protection Act would protect every American from Big Brother’s intrusion by ending the facial recognition program.”