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Facial Recognition Could Increase Safety and Decrease Wait Times When Flying

Facial Recognition Could Increase Safety and Decrease Wait Times When Flying

January 17, 2023

Airport security has been a persistent security priority throughout the twenty-first century, and there have been multiple new innovations that have helped the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) get passengers safely onto flights with shorter wait times. Most recently, the TSA has begun testing facial recognition technology to verify passengers’ identities at 16 major airports. But opposition, including from cities with facial recognition bans, would force the TSA to continue to rely on outdated technology and place restrictions on innovation that would benefit passengers most of all.

Air travel is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels, as many governments around the world have eased or lifted COVID-related travel restrictions. More people flying means greater security risks in the air and longer security lines on the ground. Some of the busiest U.S. airports saw average security wait times exceeding half an hour in March 2022. Programs like TSA PreCheck give some passengers access to shorter wait times in certain airports, but technological innovations designed to streamline the security process would decrease wait times for everyone while increasing safety.

Facial recognition is one such innovation the TSA has been testing since its pilot program launched in the Reagan Washington National Airport in 2020. Passengers insert their ID into a kiosk equipped with a camera, which compares their face against their ID photo to verify their identity. Currently, human TSA officers check the kiosks’ results, but the end goal is for the kiosks to operate independently. Automating some of the screening process will help reduce delays associated with understaffed airports.

Despite the opportunity for increased convenience and safety, opponents of facial recognition continue to fight its use in any context out of fear that the technology will inevitably lead to privacy violations. Government use of facial recognition is banned in 17 U.S. cities, the result of this targeted opposition. There are risks associated with any new technology, but banning facial recognition is an overreaction to these risks and cuts cities off from the benefits of the technology.

One critic of the TSA’s use of facial recognition, journalist Geoffrey Fowler of The Washington Post, argued in an interview that “legislators have to get involved to decide what technology can be trusted.” But there is currently no evidence that the TSA’s facial recognition technology cannot be trusted. The reason for pilot programs like the TSA’s is to discover and fix, potential problems. For example, the TSA is evaluating its facial recognition technology to ensure it does not display bias against minority demographics, a commonly-cited concern among opponents of the technology.

Facial recognition has the potential to streamline processes like airport security, increase safety where it is needed most, and reduce racial bias, since the most accurate algorithms display less bias than humans. Overreacting to potential risks, including by banning facial recognition, cuts everyone off from these benefits. The TSA is doing exactly what it should to ensure it is using facial recognition responsibly by piloting the technology before widely deploying it, and in the near future, hopefully passengers will reap the benefits of shorter security lines and safer flights.

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