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Travelers wait in line at a Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's security checkpoint.
Currently, TSA uses facial recognition technology at about 80 airports and plans to expand to more than 400 over the next few years, according to the agency. Julia Nikhinson/AP

After a Loss on FISA, Privacy-Minded Senators Find a New Target: Facial Recognition at Airports

The left-right coalition that opposed FISA Section 702 reauthorization is leading the fight to pause the TSA’s facial recognition program.

After losing a fight on government surveillance in April, a left-right coalition of privacy hawks in the Senate is onto the next privacy battle: facial recognition technology in airports.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Transportation Security Administration’s facial recognition technology are vastly different with completely unrelated goals. TSA emphasized to NOTUS that their facial recognition software is never used for surveillance or law enforcement and that it is optional for travelers.

But in Congress, the two have fallen under the same mantle, taken up by the emerging, informal caucus of civil libertarians increasingly skittish about the potential for government surveillance of private residents — for any purpose.

A group of 14 senators are leading the charge against the TSA expanding its facial recognition program. They had hoped their proposed legislation to curb the program would ride the must-pass Federal Aviation Authority bill. That didn’t happen.

“The potential for misuse of this technology extends far beyond airport security checkpoints,” wrote the senators, a coalition that ranges from hard-right conservatives like Mike Braun and Roger Marshall to outspoken progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Once Americans become accustomed to government facial recognition scans, it will be that much easier for the government to scan citizens’ faces everywhere.”

All but one in the group, Republican Sen. John Kennedy, also voted against reauthorizing FISA.

“Privacy does not sort people out by the traditional political affiliations and it does create some interesting and new partnerships,” Warren told NOTUS.

Kennedy framed the facial recognition program in the same vein as government surveillance.

“When we were going through this discussion of how to balance privacy and efficiency with FISA, we were only talking about thousands of people, now we’re talking about millions of people,” Kennedy told NOTUS. “TSA has this extraordinary power to collect all these biometrics on the American people.”

Currently, TSA uses facial recognition technology at about 80 airports and plans to expand to more than 400 over the next few years, according to the agency. A camera snaps a picture of the traveler and the technology compares it to their ID to verify their identity. TSA says the photos are not typically stored but can be kept “in a limited testing environment for evaluation of the effectiveness of the technology.”

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TSA has also been testing out a facial matching program in which certain passengers wouldn’t need to present an ID at all, and the technology would instead compare in-person photos to images in a database. The senators’ proposal aims to block the expansion of both programs.

Outside lobbyists have also jumped into the debate. A group of free speech and digital rights groups signed a letter urging senators to pause TSA’s expansion of facial recognition technology — citing concerns about bias, accuracy and privacy — until “Congress can conduct meaningful oversight of the program.”

The U.S. Travel Association accused Congress of “threatening to create chaos at airports,” and asserted that pausing expansion of the program could “result in travelers waiting an additional 120 million hours in TSA lines each year.” (TSA’s web page on the technology says opting out “will not take longer.”)

On Thursday, the legislation was left out of the Senate’s FAA extension.

Kennedy, however, vowed that the fight wouldn’t end.

“This is the first step in what is likely to be a long saga,” Kennedy said. “We’ve exposed [TSA] and now they’re running around like a bunch of sprayed roaches.”

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.