December 23, 2022

TSA’s ChiCom-Esque Security Plan

Biometrics and facial recognition are coming to an airport near you.

At this time of year, many folks are braving the airports and heading to see loved ones for the holidays. In their travels, some may encounter a TSA check that involves them having their face scanned by a camera in order to identify them while the TSA agent watches a monitor behind plexiglass. These travelers have just experienced a biometric facial scan, and it’s more controversial than just smiling for a camera.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is always on the hunt to find new ways to inconvenience, er, protect the average traveler. From confiscating all manner of liquids to full body scans, it has been taking liberties with the personal privacy of American citizens for 20-plus years.

Since 2017, facial scans have been available in select airports. These scanners are called Credential Authentication Technology with Camera (CAT-2). According to the TSA, the scanners help with security efficiency and should speed up lines to get to the gates. It is a measure the TSA would like to expand to all the airports in the United States.

The facial recognition software is used to verify a person’s face with his or her passport or driver’s license. It is also used to check faces against different databases to see if that person throws up any red flags. This measure is not mandatory, at least for now. Travelers can opt to have the TSA agent do the identity verification manually, though this in and of itself might cast suspicion on a person.

This particular technology of biometric facial recognition is one that many Americans are rightly wary of. Technology like this is used in China to keep its citizens in line and to enforce a social currency system and restrict travel.

According to New York Post writer James Bovard: “The TSA scanning system could be a big step toward a Chinese-style ‘social credit’ system that could restrict travel by people the government doesn’t like. Actually, TSA has already been caught doing that. In 2018, the New York Times exposed a secret watchlist for anyone TSA labels ‘publicly notorious.’ TSA critics to the end of the line — forever?” Troubling indeed.

Another downside to this technology is that the TSA has provided no information as to the accuracy of the scans or what algorithms it is using to train the technology. This is an important aspect because with similar technology there have been misidentifications leading to wrongful arrests.

These long-held concerns led the city of San Francisco to ban such technology. San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who was the author of the 2019 ban, called the technology “fundamentally invasive” and antithetical to democracy. He commented, “We all support good policing but none of us want to live in a police state.” San Francisco, which is the heart of Silicon Valley, is generally friendly to tech. If it’s objecting to this particular brand of “security,” that is deeply concerning.

For now, only 16 airports in the country are using these measures. The TSA hopes to expand CAT-2 use across the country over the course of the next year. Considering the major concerns regarding the breech of privacy and civil liberties, this should have Americans up in arms.

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