TSA Rolling Out ‘Voluntary’ Facial Recognition Program To Another 400 Domestic Airports

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by Tim Cushing via The TechDirt

Ever since the fall of 2018, the DHS has been threatening the American public with increased surveillance on top of the insults and intrusions TSA officers physically perform at security checkpoints.

The first inklings of this rollout came in the form of a Privacy Impact Assessment released by the DHS in September 2018. The assessment suggested there wasn’t enough privacy impacted to prevent the expansion of this program from international airports (where terrorism might be more of a threat) to domestic airports and wholly domestic flights, to ensure all citizens boarding aircraft were forced to interact with the TSA’s biometric collection/verification programs.

This was confirmed a month later, when the TSA announced the expansion of the program to extend past borders/international airports to cover PreCheck passengers and, finally, everyone else who hadn’t decided to opt in or had been forced to opt in by passing through an international airport.

Despite it being clear for a half-decade the DHS intends to subject all travelers to problematic tech, the DHS and TSA reps continue to pretend this collection/verification process is still optional. The TSA would prefer it be far less optional, since it will allow it to reduce the number of officers it employs and let machines do (most of) the work.

In fact, the TSA has said as much publicly. In March of this year, TSA administrator David Pekoske again noted the process is still (supposedly) optional, but that it’s not going to stay that way for long. How long that will be remains to be seen, but as Wilfred Chan reports for Fast Company, the rollout is continuing with hundreds more airports on the horizon.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing to expand its controversial facial recognition program to around 430 airports over the next “several years” after finding “extremely promising” results from its pilot program, an agency spokesperson tells Fast Company. The expansion comes amid allegations by rights advocates that the agency is improperlycoercing travelers to participate.

The TSA is currently “assessing” the facial recognition program at 25 airports. TSA press secretary Robert Langston said this small sample size has been an unmitigated success, with the TSA’s algorithm reportedly matching people with a 97% success rate “across demographics.”

And the TSA still maintains the program is optional for travelers. And yet real world experience seems to indicate the TSA is just hoping everyone encountering the scanners believes it isn’t.

Out of 67 responses collected by Algorithmic Justice League this week, 60 travelers reported that they saw no signs warning that they would be asked to submit to facial recognition, and 65 travelers said that TSA officers did not ask them for consent.

“I didn’t know there was an option. It happened so quickly, and it didn’t seem like there was a choice,” one traveler wrote. “I hadn’t flown in 10 years and I was overwhelmed and didn’t realize what was happening.”

Another traveler said that they started to walk away after their traditional ID check was finished, only to be stopped and told to return to the camera. “I was not told I could disagree to it, and it was made to seem like it was a new procedure,” they wrote.

Others reported feeling there was no alternative option or that opting out would subject them to body frisks or detainment. So, technically optional, but with plenty of travelers being made to feel engaging with the TSA’s biometric scanners is the only real option.

The TSA doesn’t mind projecting success from an extremely small sample size of 25 airports. (And it says it will not be releasing the results of this limited study to the public, so we’re just expected to take it at its word.) But it does have a problem with other small sample sizes, especially when the majority of responses undercut the TSA’s “this is all extremely optional” PR statements.

When forwarded these accounts, TSA’s Langston dismissed their allegations. “While TSA cannot respond to a summary report that seems to lack statistical validity with 67 respondents, I can tell you that TSA’s two-year study was based in scientific rigor and that signs are posted at each podium highlighting the voluntary nature of participation and that if anyone expressed reservation at the podium, the officer is there to conduct a manual identification verification process with ease and without delay,” he says.

Statistics are only valid if you agree with them. That appears to be the TSA’s stance. Its press secretary insists that if anyone feels this scanning might not be optional, they’re free to “speak up.” This is an ignorant thing to say when it’s the TSA that gets to decide who gets to board a plane and/or how much additional scrutiny they’re subjected to. “Speaking up” is generally not the best way to get officious officers to wave you through security. But it’s a great way to ensure you’ll be spending a lot more time talking to people who believe you’re a troublemaker.

The only other evidence of the TSA’s side of the story presented by its press secretary is even further removed from “statistical validity.”

“[W]hat we’ve heard anecdotally is that people appreciate the convenience of being able to get through security with the image capture. People love these things.”

Riiiiiiiiight. I’m sure travelers are walking up to generally unqualified government agents with the power to take away their freedoms and thanking them for adding more surveillance tech to the flying experience. Anecdotally, the press secretary is full of shit.

The TSA wants every airport to be manned by facial recognition tech and every passenger to be mandatorily subjected to it. That’s the end goal. What we’re seeing now are just the waypoints en route to a massive, connected surveillance apparatus. I guarantee that once it’s fully in place, all the assurances the TSA has made about extremely limited data retention will evaporate. It’s just too tempting to collect it all and retain it as long as possible. And the DHS has never been praised for its willpower or its discretion.

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10 months ago

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