TSA tests controversial facial recognition technology at major airports

People traveling across the country this holiday season may come across a new component of airport security. The Transportation Security Administration is now testing facial identification scanners at 16 major airports. Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler joins William Brangham to discuss the complexities and controversies around this new technology.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    If you are traveling during this busy holiday season, you may encounter a new aspect of airport security. The Transportation Security Administration is now testing facial recognition technology at 16 major airports across the country.

    William Brangham looked at the complexities and controversies around this new technology.

  • William Brangham:

    The TSA plans to expand the special recognition technology nationwide next year but many privacy experts believe that the technology is still just too risky to trust.

    So for more on this, I am joined by Geoffrey Fowler, a columnist at "The Washington Post," who helps readers navigate the complicated world of technology.

    Help us understand what is this technology?

    What is it doing?

  • Geoffrey Fowler:

    , The Washington Post: It's trying to figure out whether you are an imposter. Before now, that task has been done by human beings, who may say maybe you need some further inspection.

    The possibility is the technology could do a better job of detecting whether you are a bad person. A computer algorithm can spot a fake better than a human. That's the theory.

    The problem is we don't really know yet if it can. There is some hope by the TSA and others who want to use facial recognition and others to make them more efficient and speed things up.

    But the current program is not really doing that for the TSA because they are still having humans at those podiums, giving the final OK.

  • William Brangham:

    Any traveler would welcome anything that speeds up the process. You have reported there are significant concerns about this technology.

    What are the issues?

  • Geoffrey Fowler:

    Number one on the list is, does it really work?

    Particularly with people with darker skin. Federal government algorithms from 2019 found people with Black or Asian ancestry could be up to 100 times less accurately identified than white men. That raises all kinds of questions in the context of air travel.

    Might these systems be letting through imposters?

    Another one is, could they lead people of minorities to get unfair treatment at the airport?

    Are people with darker skin going to be sent to special lines for extra inspection?

    There are a lot of fears about the quality of this. Another concern is this is a slippery slope. Today, the TSA is not using facial recognition technology to go after criminals but they could try to expand it further. Next thing you know, we have a surveillance state all over the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    What does the TSA do with the scans?

    Do they safeguard our privacy with them?

  • Geoffrey Fowler:

    The next level of concern is once an image of your face or any data has been collected, that means it can also be stolen. We only get one face. And if someone steals the database, they have our keys for a lot of things.

    That might sound extreme but this has already happened to the Department of Homeland Security. There was a breached contractor and someone stole a whole bunch of images. One big thing is remember, anytime data is collected, it can be taken.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's say I go to the airport now.

    Can I opt out of this?

  • Geoffrey Fowler:

    When I wrote my column, I spent a lot of time talking to the TSA about this.

    They said we have the ability to say, no thank you. Just say, no photo please, and they'll just do the check. However, since my column came out, readers said they followed that, went up to the podium and got pushback. They said there is always somebody like that.

    That does not give you a lot of confidence that agents are doing and trying to take seriously.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think people will give up their privacy like with apps in phones?

  • Geoffrey Fowler:

    I call this a convenience trap. We don't spend the time reading thousands of words in the terms of service policy. And then after the fact, we regret what we gave up. Facial recognition can be another one of these situations.

    You want to get through security more quickly but there are other places that want to scan your face. Airlines want to scan your face to replace your ticket. Legislators have to get involved to decide what technology can be trusted.

  • William Brangham:

    Geoffrey Fowler, thank you for walking us through this.

  • Geoffrey Fowler:

    You bet.

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