The Senate Commerce Committee has approved the TSA Modernization Act, a bill recently introduced to the Senate that is aimed at expanding the Transportation Security Administration’s and the Customs and Border Protection agency’s use of biometric screening at various border checkpoints in the US.
The legislation arrives as the CBP has been expanding a biometric border screening program for outgoing international flights in which it collects the facial biometrics of all travelers, discarding only the data pertaining to US citizens. Meanwhile, the TSA’s voluntary PreCheck biometric pre-screening program has been steadily expanding over the last few years, and the organization has been working with the Department of Homeland Security to trial contactless fingerprint scanning at airports.
The new bill, introduced by Senator John Thune (R-SD), aimed to allow these government authorities to scan faces, fingers, and eyes at not only airport security checkpoints but also baggage drop-offs and boarding areas. More importantly, it enables the authorities to scan travelers on domestic flights, despite the CBP’s previous assertions that its efforts are meant only to fulfill its mandate to biometrically track the non-citizens coming and going from the US.
The bill’s introduction has prompted a call to action from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose Adam Schwartz urges readers to voice their opposition to it to their state representatives. Schwartz argued that the ease with which facial recognition can be applied makes it a threat to citizens’ privacy, echoing concerns raised this week over the Australian government’s effort to implement public facial recognition security systems nationwide. He also notes that some research has found facial recognition technologies to work less accurately with non-white subjects (an issue Apple claims to have resolved with its iPhone X’s facial recognition system), and that any government collection of biometric data entails the risk of a data breach. And Schwartz points to the slippery slope risk that government use of biometric screening will continue to expand in ways that aren’t currently under discussion.
The bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee with amendments requiring testing and evaluation of security technologies, and that the TSA conduct a privacy impact assessment with respect to the collection of travelers’ biometric data, among other elements. It will now proceed to consideration by the full US Senate.
October 5, 2017 – by Alex Perala