Five senators are calling on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to halt its use of facial recognition technology, arguing that it is unclear how travelers can opt out of facial recognition at airports.

In a letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the use of facial recognition technology for passenger screening at 16 major domestic airports “alarming.”

“Thousands of people daily are encountering a decision to travel or safeguard their privacy – a decision that threatens our democracy,” the senators wrote. “While TSA claims that facial identification scans are not mandatory, it is unclear how travelers will know that they can ‘opt out,’ and what the consequences for travelers are if they choose to opt out.”

The senators explained that facial recognition technology may further exacerbate racial discrimination, noting a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that found Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men by the technology.

“Americans’ civil rights are under threat when the government deploys this technology on a mass scale, without sufficient evidence that the technology is effective on people of color and does not violate Americans’ right to privacy,” they wrote.

Additionally, the senators raised concerns over whether or not TSA would be able to securely keep a vast trove of biometric data from bad actors. Specifically, the senators referenced the 2019 data breach in which hackers gained access to thousands of photos of travelers from a Department of Homeland Security database.

The senators are calling on TSA to provide answers to several questions, including how travelers are notified of their right to opt out of facial recognition and if those travelers who choose to opt out face any consequences or additional screenings.

They also want to know what training measures TSA has in place for staff regarding travelers who choose to opt out, whether TSA has ever shared biometric data with other government agencies, and what measures TSA is taking to protect biometric data from cyberattacks or any other form of unauthorized distribution or release.

The senators also requested TSA provide data on the accuracy and volume of its facial recognition technology program from 2020 to 2022 – broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender.

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.