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Lawmakers debate restricting TSA facial recognition technology

TSA says that photos of passengers are never saved, except during a "limited testing environment for evaluation" of the technology.
New TSA facial recognition technology
Posted at 8:59 PM, May 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-02 20:59:53-04

How quickly should travelers move through TSA security at airports? As fast as possible, right? Well, not so fast.

A debate is heating up in Washington over what technology should be deployed at security checkpoints and whether the TSA should be restricted in what facial recognition software can be used.

If you head to the airport there is always that moment of uncertainty of just how long the security line will be. Of course, lines at TSA can get long, which is why the Transportation Security Administration has been actively deploying new technologies to try and speed things up.

Some of those technologies, though, have been controversial.

The heart of the debate is over facial recognition technology. Maybe you have used it during a recent flight — often, it's the first thing you encounter at the security checkpoint. Your ID is scanned and then your face is checked to make sure it's you. That technology, though, has at least one lawmaker worried — Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

Merkley wants more flexibility for travelers to opt out of facial scans, and additional safeguards over how their data is used. For months he has spoken out against this on the Senate floor and on social media with posts on YouTube and Instagram.

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Sen. Merkley is expected to propose an amendment in the coming days that could change how often the technology is utilized. The senator is expected to do so during debate on the FAA Reauthorization Act, a bill that sets rules for aviation for the next five years.

Geoff Freeman is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, and is against any rollback on technology.

He says TSA's efforts are helping make the travel experience more enjoyable with faster security lines. Plus, the TSA does allow travelers to opt out of scans already and has committed to data protection.

"If you don't want to use this technology, if you want to do things the old way, go for it. What the TSA is trying to do, and innovators are trying to do, is give travelers a new and better experience," said Freeman.

TSA officials tell Scripps News that this debate on Capitol Hill does have the potential to halt the program. TSA says that photos of passengers are never saved, except during a "limited testing environment for evaluation" of the technology.