Why Is TSA Adding Facial Recognition at Airports?
Airports Industry Innovation

Why Is TSA Adding Facial Recognition at Airports?

DALLAS — In 2022, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began adding facial recognition technology to the security process at airports across the country. The move is part of a larger effort to use biometrics in airport security, which will include facial scanning.

Airport facial recognition aims to help the TSA more accurately identify known threats and prevent them from entering secure areas while making it easier for passengers to get through security efficiently. In addition to making travel safer, this technology will reduce wait times at airports by reducing human errors.

Photo: Phil Mosley via Unsplash

TSA Wants to Streamline Airport Security Process

The TSA has been working with airports, airlines, and other stakeholders for several years to develop a system that will help them identify passengers who are not allowed to fly. The agency believes this technology will be more effective than current methods, which include asking passengers for identification as they go through security checkpoints.

According to the TSA, their primary goal for this technology is to streamline the screening process of passengers. The idea is that by using facial recognition, they can focus on people who have higher threat scores rather than wasting time checking all passengers’ IDs.

The new system is expected to improve security in two ways — first, by reducing the number of false alarms that occur when the TSA searches for matches between passengers and their IDs. Secondly, it ensures that no one tries to use another person’s ID.

New Facial Recognition system by American Airlines and Thales. Debuting at DFW. Photo: American Airlines

How the TSA Plans to Use Airport Facial Recognition Technology

An airport’s facial recognition system works in a straightforward way. First, it scans the passenger’s face to generate a template of the individual’s facial features. The computer then compares this template against a database of previously collected templates from known individuals.

To ensure people cannot bypass this system, airports also must ensure that passengers are not covering their faces with hats and sunglasses.

The new system uses facial recognition software to capture known terrorists or criminals. Only passengers who match up with verified images will be allowed through security without further questioning or screening. If there isn’t a match, the traveler may be pulled aside for additional screening.

portrait photo of man with laser lines on his face
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

The Concerns of Adding Facial Recognition to Airport Security

Facial recognition is the latest technology to be added to airport security, and it concerns some people. The first issue is privacy. Facial recognition is a biometric identifier that law enforcement agencies can use to track people’s movements. Passengers also worry that the data collected through the software isn’t safeguarded against cyber threats and misuse.

Secondly, the TSA hasn’t released any statements about the accuracy of facial recognition. Facial recognition technology can be unreliable in some cases of distinguishing differences between race, skin tone, and gender.

With millions of passengers going through airport checkpoints, the accuracy of facial recognition remains a key issue. The technology could mistake a traveler for someone else, which may lead TSA to detain more people and invade their privacy even more.

Finally, travelers are weary that airport facial recognition technology could delay them from boarding their flights. However, the TSA assures passengers that the process is significantly fast. Typically, manual verification lasts up to 30 seconds. Facial recognition technology only takes two to three seconds to verify a person’s identity.

The tool itself will not admit further examination. The officer decides to make that call, depending on the circumstances.

Photo: TSA

TSA Says It’s Committed to Passenger Privacy

The TSA says this technology is one of many tools they will use to keep travelers safe from security threats. It also says the system does not track individuals or store personal information about them. Those who opt-in will have their information checked in the government database. 

After passengers’ identities have been checked, the TSA’s system will make the information anonymous and encrypted. Next, it will transfer the data to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for an interim analysis for technology effectiveness testing. After two years, DHS will destroy the data.

The TSA has also said this technology will not be mandatory for all passengers — and that there will be signs in airports informing people about what they can expect when they arrive at their gate. The agency stated that no images are stored or shared with other organizations outside its own systems. The photos they do retain are deleted after 12 hours or less.

IATA TravelPass. Photo: IATA

The Success Rate of Biometrics

Facial recognition technology has been remarkably successful at identifying imposters in airport security. It has been used in airports worldwide, from London’s Heathrow Airport to JFK International in New York City. The results of these efforts are staggering. Since 2018, more than 1,000 imposters have been caught attempting to use fake travel documents to enter the U.S.

The DHS has been testing facial recognition software since the early 2000s and found that it is as accurate as humans at identifying people with fake documents. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recent studies show the technology is approximately 99.5% accurate in facial recognition.

Facial recognition technology has been a huge boon to airport security, but it’s not perfect. The most common way for facial recognition technology to fail is when environmental conditions are not ideal — such as inconsistent lighting and positioning or unclear and obscured facial features.

For example, errors tend to occur when an individual is not looking directly at the camera or shadows are cast across their face. Aging is another contributing factor that can affect error rates. As subjects’ faces change over time, it can be challenging for the technology to match pictures taken several years apart.

However, facial recognition technology has made strides since its initial introduction — and the TSA is hopeful that the screening process will continue to improve over time as technology advances.

American Airlines says the new TSA check-in system will typically take less than five seconds. Video: American Airlines

Making Airports Safer With Facial Recognition Technology

Airports across the nation are adding facial recognition technology this year to increase the security of flights and passengers. This new system will help TSA agents identify criminals and people on watch lists.

While many people have privacy and accuracy concerns with biometric technology, it is still one more step closer to making air travel safer for all.

Featured image: American Airlines

Emily Newton is a technology journalist. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations.

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