Washington News Bureau

TSA expands testing of facial recognition technology as some in Congress voice concerns

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says the future of airport security is getting faster and more high-tech. The agency is expanding its testing phase of facial recognition technology to make sure you match your ID from 16 to 28 airports nationwide.

“We have automated what we have been doing manually as a snapshot in time to make sure you who you say you,” said Jason Lim, TSA’s Identity Management Capabilities Manager.

Channel 2′s Washington Correspondent Kirstin Garriss went behind the scenes with TSA at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to see the system in action.

[DOWNLOAD: Free WSB-TV News app for alerts as news breaks]

Lim said the system is only activated when you scan your ID. He explains the live photos and ID scans are also immediately deleted.

“This is designed to assist the officer in making a security decision in case there are any anomalies, any alarms or any resolutions that need to happen,” he said. “We also can rely on the officers [who] can have contextual judgment and his training to make the right call.”

On Capitol Hill, some Democrats worry this technology could disproportionately misidentify minorities. Lawmakers reintroduced legislation earlier this year that would prevent the government from using facial recognition technology.

“I think that the more this technology is deployed, frankly, the more concerns it’s going to raise,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D – Washington State.

Washington State Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal is leading this effort in the House. The DC Bureau took those concerns about racial bias with this kind of technology to the TSA then we shared the agency’s response with her.

After listening to the TSA’s response, Rep. Jayapal said she still isn’t confident in the agency’s use of this technology.

“Put a moratorium. Let’s put a pause on utilizing this technology until we are absolutely confident that we are utilizing it in the best possible way,” she said.


TSA officials said this pilot program is voluntary and passengers can have their identification manually checked by an agent.

In 2021, TSA worked with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate lab to measure the performance of this system. Agency officials said it found no significant differences in accuracy across race and skin tone. Additionally, TSA explains that any biometric technology used at the checkpoints “must be able to adeptly meet the challenge associated with matching different demographic variations, such as race and skin tone,” according to a written statement.

“Equity is very important to us because you know the diversity of passengers that we face every day. We want to make sure it works equally well for everybody,” said Lim.

But Rep. Jayapal said there are already reports of some passengers facing repercussions for opting out.

“We’re hearing from a lot of constituents that they were getting bad treatment from the agents who were saying ‘that’s a real problem, now we have to find someone to screen you differently.’ That should not be the case. No one should feel that they are a burden to the system because they’re protecting their information, their faces, their biometric information, and that should be the standard,” said Jayapal.

[SIGN UP: WSB-TV Daily Headlines Newsletter]

A TSA spokesperson said, “Transportation security officers are expected to treat all passengers with dignity and respect.” They added you can tell the officer at the podium if you don’t want to use this technology.

Over the last few years, TSA officials said they’ve met with Congress nearly 50 times for briefings and hearings about its use of this technology. But Jayapal said she still wants more information.

“We shouldn’t allow a certain group of people – largely Black and brown - or Americans who don’t even know their information is being utilized to be sort of the test case for this,” said Rep. Jayapal.

Lim said this system is still in the testing phase, but he’s encouraged by the results.

“It enhances not just passenger experience, passenger privacy, civil rights and also our security at the airports,” said Lim.

TSA isn’t rolling out this system to every airport yet. Lim said it’s still in the testing phase because there’s a high bar the agency must meet.

“They will need to be satisfied with all the protections we have in place with all the performances we can validate through testing and in order to move forward with full deployment so we’re still not there yet,” said Lim.