Will TSA Steal Your Mug?
Dorothy Parker’s signature line, “What fresh hell is this?” is the new mantra for travelers at American airports. TSA is rapidly expanding a program in which travelers stand in photo kiosks that compare their faces with a federal database of photos from passport applications, drivers’ licenses, and other sources to see if people receive official permission to fly.
What could possibly go wrong? Aside from everything? Will Americans tolerate an out-of-control agency intruding ever further into their lives? The Washington Post warned in 2019 that airport facial-recognition systems are “America’s biggest step yet to normalize treating our faces as data that can be stored, tracked and, inevitably, stolen.”
Experiencing the surveillance state
Flying out of Washington National Airport in February, I saw a special entry line for the CLEAR facial scan program that enables people who pay $189 a year to skip TSA lines. TSA promises that its new airport regime will respect Americans’ privacy. Fat chance: TSA previously promised no traveler would be delayed more than 10 minutes at TSA checkpoints.
I stood and watched semi-frazzled travelers enter a roped-off turf to get TSA approval for their visage.
A skinny young woman with a CLEAR t-shirt and a clipboard was standing guard at the entrance of the biometric site. She looked like a cherub with long straight red hair and a welcoming smile.
“How soon will they be making the biometric checks mandatory?” I asked her.
“I don’t know anything about that,” she replied, as if I’d asked about the surface temperature of the planet Venus.
“Do people ever complain about having to do the biometric checks?
“No, this is voluntary,” she replied with a smile wider than a Kamala Harris grimace.
She was a good Washingtonian: She could never imagine any federal agency flogging the hell out of the Constitution. I considered peppering her with another half dozen questions but wanted to keep my sarcasm fresh for dealing with TSA agents. My hunch was that the redheaded cherub was not a regular reader of the Future of Freedom Foundation website.
TSA is one of the most secretive domestic agencies.
In July, the Washington Post reported that TSA agents at National Airport threatened long delays for any passenger who refused to be photographed, including U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Merkley noted that TSA falsely claimed that there were signs at National Airport notifying people that the facial scans are optional.
“Trust us” is the TSA mantra for the new program. TSA is one of the most secretive domestic agencies and is notoriously noncompliant with the Freedom of Information Act. Washington Post reporter Geoffrey Fowler notes that TSA has refused to disclose data on its new system: “So, we really have to at this point just take their word that it is a more accurate than people and speeding things up.” That includes failing to disclose “how often its system falsely identifies people, through incorrect positive or negative matches.”
What could possibly go wrong?
TSA will be relying on photo-identification systems with misidentification rates up to 100 times higher for blacks and Hispanics. When the ACLU tested facial-recognition systems in 2018 by running photos of members of Congress through a massive data of police mug shots, 28 lawmakers “were incorr
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