The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Senate's "Longer Lines, Less Security" Caucus

The Merkley-Kennedy Amendment Would Prevent Travelers From Choosing TSA Lanes with Face Recognition


There's a new proposal on Capitol Hill to improve air travel. On the one hand, it will slow down passenger screening and lengthen checkpoint lines.  On the other hand, it will make you a little less safe.

Remarkably, the idea of combining slower TSA wait times with weaker security has bipartisan support from fourteen Senators, led by Sen. Merkley (D-OR) and Sen. Kennedy (R-LA). Naturally, they're not selling their proposal that way. Instead, they claim to be saving air travelers from themselves—and from Big Brother.

They're wrong on all counts.

The Merkley-Kennedy amendment to FAA reauthorization will be offered in the next few days. If passed, it would prevent TSA from expanding its use of face recognition technology in place of ID checks.

This is remarkable. We've all gone through TSA checkpoints juggling a carry-on in one hand and a briefcase or purse in the other while using any leftover hands to hold wallets and present IDs to the TSA officer. Lacking four hands, each passenger spends time fumbling with these items at the checkpoint, guaranteeing an extra couple of minutes' delay; at a busy airport, that all adds up to much longer wait times for everyone

TSA's pilot project, Touchless ID, is far more efficient.  I saw it in action at Atlanta's airport as a member of the Commission on Seamless and Secure Travel. Passengers walk up, stand on a circle, look at the camera, and are cleared in seconds. Even when the neighboring PreCheck line was backed up, the lane for Touchless ID never had more than one or two people in it. I've never seen happier people at a TSA checkpoint.

Maybe that's what worries politicians and groups like the ACLU, who have campaigned relentlessly against facial recognition. They're afraid they'll lose if they let ordinary travelers make up their own minds about TSA and facial recognition.

It sure looks like that's what Senators Merkley and Kennedy have in mind. Their amendment would flat-out prohibit TSA from expanding face recognition at its checkpoints—in Atlanta or at an airport near you.

What justifies this ban? Well, advocacy groups claim that face recognition invades privacy and discriminates based on travelers' race. But neither charge is true.

Privacy fears are particularly overdone; the system I saw compared a picture the government already had (a passport photo) to a picture taken at the checkpoint and then discarded. And everyone who got in that lane knew what they were doing; the whole process is built on consent

Claims of bias based on skin tone or race, meanwhile, are years out of date. According to recent studies by TSA and CBP and by NIST, facial recognition systems demonstrate a negligible difference in accuracy when identifying members of different groups, as long as the systems use good algorithms, good lighting, and good cameras. TSA's sister agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), uses such a system already, and in daily use, it shows no significant demographic disparities, operating at an accuracy rate that consistently exceeds 98 percent.

What about security? It turns out that human beings are nowhere near 98 percent accuracy when they check ID. The technology is far better at matching faces than even experienced passport examiners. As for bias, it's worth remembering that handing decisions to human being doesn't eliminate that risk. If you want to be safer, and run less risk of bias, algorithmic face recognition is the better choice.

That leaves just one question for supporters of the Kennedy-Merkley amendment.

Why are you afraid to let travelers make their own decisions about face recognition?