back to article Senate bill aims to stop Uncle Sam using facial recognition at airports

The US Transportation Security Administration's plans to expand its use of facial recognition tech, already in use at several American airports, may be over before it begins if a newly introduced Senate bill becomes law. The bipartisan Traveler Privacy Protection Act [PDF], SB 3361, was introduced this week by Senators Jeff …

  1. normal1

    How about the other way?

    We use facial recognition, and make it easier to fly with the tech....

    All you need to do to take away people's "liberty", is to make it more convenient.....

    No more lines, and the walls tell you where to go.

    1. Grogan Silver badge

      Re: How about the other way?

      That's not how they are using the tech at this time. They aren't using it for you, they are using it against you. It's to see if you match known persons that are being sought. Facial recognition often makes mistakes, and often has higher error rates for "minorities", too.

      So basically you want them to trojan horse it, wrapping it in convenience, while still doing the same offensive database scans on you.

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

        Re: How about the other way?

        Facial recognition often makes mistakes

        Do you think that having a person visually compare your face to your passport photo is likely to be more accurate? The officials doing those checks are also comparing you with a list of persons being sought, either from memory or against a "wanted" poster on their desk. They could make a mistake there as well.

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: How about the other way?

          "They could make a mistake there as well."

          They can and do. The problem that's been highlighted with facial recognition systems is that those using them put too much faith in the outputs. I can recall one story where a false match (black female) should have been rejected as a match since the person arrested was 8 months gone and the person they were looking for was not with child. (same day match up so no time to get pregnant and fast track a baby). Other stories have shown similar cockups. Computer said these were the same people so they went with it in the face of contradictory facts.

          It's a tool. I don't have a big problem with FR being used in an airport in real time. Mostly because I don't fly anymore, but if it isn't keeping non-matches on file for any longer than it takes to see if the person is wanted or, perhaps, 24 hours, I don't see a problem. Not only should they not keep the image, any data should be purged too. It's not the business of government to have such comprehensive files on people that they can do a search for "John Smith, ident #899576124A4F7" and get a report of multiple daily matches showing everywhere they've been. That sort of thing will be abused and police will have squads rounding up loads of people based on location even more than a rational suspicion of wrongdoing.

          1. trindflo Bronze badge
            Big Brother

            keeping the data

            What I came to say. Why is the data being kept? Clearly to build a better database. The only objection I have to the tech.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: keeping the data

              It's NOT being kept. RTFA.

              1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

                Re: keeping the data

                "It's NOT being kept. RTFA."

                Thanks for that. I did and I didn't see anything about data storage/retention/privacy policies ...

                1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

                  Re: keeping the data

                  Note the bill gives the TSA 90 days to destroy this information GP claims they're not retaining.

          2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge
            Unhappy

            Re: How about the other way?

            if it isn't keeping non-matches on file for any longer than it takes to see if the person is wanted, or perhaps, 24 hours.

            One of the problems with governmental data collection in general, and electronic data collection in particular, is the expansion of data use beyond the original remit.

            The government here sells driver license records to corporations. The local metro touts their electronic mass transit fare cards. They encourage you to "sign up" / "register" your card so if it's lost or stolen, you can get a free replacement. What they don't tell you is they have an agreement with the company providing the technology to sell the location+user-ID data to that company, who in turn sells it on to data brokers. If you are poor and take advantage of reduced rates, in addition to providing your personal details to Metro, your photo is taken and placed on the card. That data also is sold on. I use the "disposable" electronic cards, which are not associated with me personally.

            1. MachDiamond Silver badge

              Re: How about the other way?

              "One of the problems with governmental data collection in general, and electronic data collection in particular, is the expansion of data use beyond the original remit."

              No argument from me on that one.

              I never register a transit fare card. I also don't put too much on one so if it's lost, I'm not out a bunch of money. If possible, I only purchase what I need using cash for that day's travel. The exception used to be when I was on holiday and would buy a pass good for 7-10 days and I took very good care of that.

        2. Grogan Silver badge

          Re: How about the other way?

          They aren't sitting there with photos of felons, going "mmm hmm" and legitimate travelers tend to have pieces of legitimate ID, with legitimate photos, which helps mitigate the human error. There's a big difference... humans have reasoning capacity. Humans with rigid computer systems generally don't. "computer says this, we do that"

          Don't be a bunch of authority whipped lemmings.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: How about the other way?

      "All you need to do to take away people's "liberty", is to make it more convenient....."

      The scary thing is that people are already running down this path in the name of "convenience". Things like auto-pay and tap to pay are examples. I've been bitten by auto-pay when the bank decided to place a hold on my direct deposit pay out of the blue and sent a whole raft of things spinning off. It just fed on itself as the bank kept adding and increasing the overdraft fees each time. Of course the companies that didn't get their payment would put it through again straight away, doubling the bank fees.

      I pay all of my bills manually. I know when they are due and I find it prudent to review them for errors when they come in. The last thing I want is for an inflated water bill to sail through via auto-pay draining my account or having a payment card remotely scanned by somebody and find my bank account poorer by a large amount. For every minute I might save, there could be hours of trying to fix something that's gone wrong.

  2. Barrie Shepherd

    " "Facial recognition has nothing to do with the government intruding on people's personal privacy. It has to do with validating that the person presenting themselves to travel is indeed who they claim to be.""

    The old you have "nothing to hide so you have nothing to fear" argument of government employed experts when the government want to do something questionable.

    Photo validation can be completed locally by comparison of a live image with the Passport image at the machine - so what is the justification to send the images off to servers for storage? Simple data and biometrics collection on a grand scale.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Images are not sent to storage anywhere, that is explicitly stated on the TSA website.

      What these systems do is exactly what you suggest, they compare the photo on the passport with your face locally. They may also compare your face with a list of wanted people, but that facial image is not stored.

      1. Woodnag

        If TSA are lying, and are caught, who goes to jail?

        No-one.

        Of course the images are going to NSA, and NSA do something with the images that TSA "knows nothing about", which may or may not include storing.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Keep that tinfoil hat tight :)

          1. An_Old_Dog Silver badge
            Holmes

            Better Get Something Stronger than a Tinfoil Hat

            In an era gone by, I went to the motor vehicles department to get my driver's license renewed. I noticed the (film-based) camera had FOUR sets of lenses and shutters. I asked the clerk why that was. He smiled and said, "Oh, you know, government use." So:

            One copy for my driver's license. One copy for the provincial government. One copy for the national government. And a final, fourth copy, for ... who?

            (Icon for, "Think about it.")

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Of course the images are going to NSA, and NSA do something with the images that TSA "knows nothing about"

          Yeah, don't forget that GCHQ is monitoring what you had for breakfast, and the lizard people are preparing for your anal probing.

          1. An_Old_Dog Silver badge
            Black Helicopters

            Monitoring

            Governments compulsively collect information on its citizens any and everyone it can, and squirrels it away "for future use." You know, "just in case." They don't care what you had for brekkies, today, but the collection makes them feel "powerful", and "in control." And who knows how profile data might be misused against someone in the future? Someone who read book A, watched TV program B, ate breakfast cereal C, and whose rail pass showed they were near location D may well be deemed "a threat", "against the government", etc. and singled out for "special treatment".

            You ate Super Chocolate Frosted Bombs for breakfast? You might be an anarchist. I mean, just look at the cereal name: it includes the word, 'bomb'. Your railpass shows were "near" a protest/riot? There's big tick against you. You stopped to read a handbill about the "Anarchist Faire, Nov 25" slapped on a lightpost in a video-monitored public park? Well that tears it, you're goin' to "Gitmo" (the U.S.' Guantanamo Bay naval facility / interrogation facility).

            What people seem to not understand is that It doesn't take another Hitler to kick this sort of thing into motion. It doesn't take another Joseph McCarthy. It doesn't take another Stalin. It just takes ignorant, irrational people in positions of power. How many ignorant, irrational people are in positions of power? Seemingly, far-too-many.

            (Icon for "extra-judicial rendition".)

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Monitoring

              How many ignorant, irrational people are in positions of power?

              Nowhere near as many as infest conspiracy theory websites.

              1. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

                Conspiracy Theories

                It doesn't matter how many people infest conspiracy theory websites. The ignorant, irrational people in positions of power are the ones who are most-able to make bad things happen. That's rather the definition of being "in a position of power."

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Sheldon Jacobson's been a big proponent of automated passenger screening since at least 2006. I don't recall seeing any argument from him in favor of it other than "oh noes 9/11!", though to be honest I haven't looked closely. But I'd need to see something a hell of a lot more convincing than "I say it's wrong!" before I'd bother considering his position.

      And that's particularly true in this case, given the TSA's vast incompetence (as demonstrated over and over again) and the US Federal government's gleeful abuse of surveillance technologies since the PATRIOT Act. (And before then, of course, but they haven't even attempted to hide it since the legislative branch gave the executive that particular gift.)

      I mean, obviously we need to improve passenger screening, given the dozens of repeats of 9/11 in the years ... oh, wait.

  3. DerekCurrie
    Boffin

    BIG FAT Problem:

    Facial recognition doesn't just 'sometimes' fail. It USUALLY fails. The technology remains Not Ready For Prime Time. It's yet another, of many, technologies that KindaSortaMaybe work well enough to shove it out into the public and make some money from false marketing. Does that remind your of anything, such as Autonomous Driving, a more deadly failure? Or maybe it reminds you of "AI", aka Artificial Idiocy, aka monkey-see-monkey-do?

    With it's failings in mind, what is the actual point? There are dozens of less intrusive and more accurate methods of verifying people's identities that actually work.

    Then of course consider to what extent the identification technologies as a whole could or do compromise the Fourth and/or Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. Identifying people as being themselves, versus some scammer, etc., can be extremely important. Just be careful to walk the line of maintaining personal privacy AND avoidance of false, BS, shyte technology arrest.

    Then of course there's that basic problem of SECURITY. Don't allow personal identifiers to be stolen and used by crooks and people with ill intent.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: BIG FAT Problem:

      With it's failings in mind, what is the actual point? There are dozens of less intrusive and more accurate methods of verifying people's identities that actually work.

      Dozens, really? Care to name them, other than having the passport officer hold the photo up and say "yeah, that's probably you"?

      Personally I'd much rather use facial recognition in an e-gate than stand in line for two hours just to have a real person make the same check.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: BIG FAT Problem:

        "Personally I'd much rather use facial recognition in an e-gate than stand in line for two hours just to have a real person make the same check."

        That's fine, let's get you downtown so we can also roll you in ink and get an imprint. While you are there and looking the other way (also looking pretty silly all covered in ink) they'll get the chip implanted too. That will really speed your way through the gates since it will be easier to read the chip than do facial recognition via a government acquired 480p web cam provided by the lowest bidder.

        The presumption has to be that you are who you say you are and nobody (official) wants you grabbed and locked up. Critically examining every blade of hay in a pile to find a small needle isn't very efficient, but that's what's being proposed. There doesn't seem to be anybody very clever that is proposing a better way. Perhaps they are, but are also admitting their approach isn't 100% and politicians want 100% (and a pony for Christmas). I've just sorted through a whole bunch of resistors now that I have an organized bin system for them. I know that there are some resistors in wrong drawers, but putting each one under the magnifying glass and measuring ones with ambiguous colors is a waste of time. The vast majority ARE in the correct bins and I can also check them when I pull some out.

        1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

          Re: BIG FAT Problem:

          let's get you downtown so we can also roll you in ink and get an imprint. While you are there and looking the other way (also looking pretty silly all covered in ink) they'll get the chip implanted too. That will really speed your way through the gates since it will be easier to read the chip than do facial recognition via a government acquired 480p web cam provided by the lowest bidder.

          I presume you're exaggerating for effect, but frankly that's a pretty stupid comment.

          My face is on public display all the time, anyone can see it & decide if it is meaningful. There's no comparison to having an ID chip implanted, and few people would agree to that. For one thing, how would you prove you're who you claim to be for the data on the chip, via a fingerprint or facial scan? Turtles all the way down. As to the camera resolution, biometric passports have 32kB of EPROM available for the total data, so it doesn't store a high-res photo anyway. It concentrates more on storing key data elements.

          The presumption has to be that you are who you say you are and nobody (official) wants you grabbed and locked up. Critically examining every blade of hay in a pile to find a small needle isn't very efficient, but that's what's being proposed.

          And that's pretty much what happens when your face is scanned by a human agent, especially those referred to as "super recognizers".

          I've just sorted through a whole bunch of resistors now that I have an organized bin system for them. I know that there are some resistors in wrong drawers, but putting each one under the magnifying glass and measuring ones with ambiguous colors is a waste of time. The vast majority ARE in the correct bins and I can also check them when I pull some out.

          That is exactly what should happen when a particular face is red-flagged, whether by automated facial recognition, or manual scrutiny. A failure to do that is a failure in the system, not of the concept. The solution is to fix the system, not to reject the technology.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: BIG FAT Problem:

            "I presume you're exaggerating for effect, but frankly that's a pretty stupid comment"

            The ink thing is a reference to "Snowcrash". The mention of chipping people is already out there. It's being sold as more "convenient" for people to have a chip in their hand to access their workplace, buy from vending machines and unlock their car. I know somebody that sort of DIY'd a chip in their hand to start their car. (They had somebody quasi-medical person do the implanting). Eww.

            Yes, your face is out there if you choose it to be, but that doesn't mean that it's a good idea for government agencies to be tracking you as a matter of accepted policy. FR has faults so if it's brought into the mainstream and its flaws are constantly mentioned, requiring everybody get chipped as a way to cure those failings is an easy next step. Not required to go about your own daily business, but required if you want to fly or enter a government building, receive benefits etc. For all practical purposes, you might have to get it.

            1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: BIG FAT Problem:

              The ink thing is a reference to "Snowcrash". The mention of chipping people is already out there. It's being sold as more "convenient" for people to have a chip in their hand to access their workplace, buy from vending machines and unlock their car. I know somebody that sort of DIY'd a chip in their hand to start their car. (They had somebody quasi-medical person do the implanting). Eww.

              Aha! Captain Cyborg! Previously Reading Uni's nutty proffessor. Met him in a pub where he was showing off his 'secure' chip implant and how useful that would be. Told him I was pretty good with a knife. But what you describe is pretty much the 'creeping compulsion' Labour used to try and sell ID Cards. Buying booze, or a train ticket would be so much easier and more convenient with an ID Card! Most of the lists of things we could do with ID we could already do quite happily, but wouldn't then create an entry in the national ID database. Then stuff like social credit, or individual carbon allowances would be harder to implement. But it's already going this way with requiring people to have smart phones and apps to do stuff. That has the added benefit of tying ID related transactions to location information. Also includes facial recognition, eg during the Panicdemic there were proposals that Australians(?) prove they were complying with home detention by sending selfies of them at home, on demand.

              Chips in passports, chips in phones, chips in cards.. So why not chips in people. Think of the convenience and time saved!

  4. t245t Silver badge
    Big Brother

    The uses of facial recognition

    Well over in GB land, the cops use it to spy on the homeless at food drops. They walk up-and-down the line having a friendly chat while getting their faces in the system. If there's a hit then a van pulls-up and the poor bastard gets hauled off. Serves him right for trying to scrounge a free sandwich.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The uses of facial recognition

      Its usually those on the lamb who are already posted in the local papers as being on the run. It used to happen all the time in Norwich and no doubt in many other cities around the UK. The councils spent a fortune on the latest facial recognition black cameras around the city of Norwich.

  5. prh99

    Someone needs to kick Sheldon Jacobson out his ivory tower bubble into the real world of mission creep.

    If you think they won't try to put it to other uses you're either naive or stupid.

    1. Woodnag

      Sheldon Jacobson did the original TSA Pre-Check research...

      1. prh99

        I can't say I am impressed. Pay to skip the security theater....that needed research?

        Seems they could make everyones life a little easier by automatically enrolling eligible people who fly more than certain threshold instead of just monetizing it.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          His work was a bit more complex than that — I posted the link to his 2006 paper in an earlier thread. Not that I'm a fan, but credit where it's due; the paper does do actual work. (It proves the problem of correctly allocating passengers to different security classes is NP-Hard and provides a greedy approximation algorithm, IIRC.)

  6. ka5s@earthlink.net

    Pictures

    Hmmm.

    Would photography be kept from cameras? Would my Verizon's pictures be only kept long enough to be forgotten?

    Dad once let me use his two-lens camera in 1952, and somewhere there's a B&W picture I took, and I've taken pictures of USAF B52's in Vietnam.

    Whoops. . . .

    Cortland Richmond

  7. martinusher Silver badge

    Dumb Legislators, again

    The systems in use at airports are there to automate the job of immigration agents. At every point of entry everywhere in the world the agent's primary job is to sort the questionable traveler from the vast majority of regular ones. The machines and, in the US schemes like Global Entry, aid in this process. Tools like facial recognition are only part of the process, a process that started when you bought your ticket -- the system will make a judgment call about who you are based on not just your residence but things like your travel history and even your credit history. Its true to say "they know who you are" -- a drag for some but then that's their job.

    Facial recognition kiosks are just a tool to speed up airport arrivals. Back in the good old days arriving at the International terminal at Los Angeles was truly a crap shoot -- if your plane's arrival coincided with one or more Asian flights then you'd be stuck at the back of a huge line for literally hours. The kiosks speed things up by doing a routine check and flagging to the immigration agent whether it thought that you were who you claimed to be. If the check tailed then it meant that the person in the kiosk had to take a closer look. Its also now common practice to take a picture of all people entering a country along with a thumbprint - the details vary slightly from country to country but the basics seem to be the same. All this goes into your entry/exit record.

    Immigration and customs enforcement are also looking at you as you trudge from the gate to the entry area. They have a fair idea of who might be smuggling, who's documents are questionable and so on and they identify well in advance who they want to 'randomly' single our for secondary inspection. All larger airports do this and once you're aware of the setup its interesting to see how its implemented.

    Anyway, I resent our legislators wasting time and resources micromanaging federal agencies. Their job is to set broad parameters and provide funding. If they were truly concerned about our privacy then they'd fix things like Section 702 but they're obviously not, they're just grandstanding, setting up their campaign for the next election.

    1. Sven Coenye

      Re: Dumb Legislators, again

      TSA is not ICE and TSA is not limited to international travelers.

  8. DS999 Silver badge

    If ALL it is doing

    Is comparing your face to the face on your ID card, I don't see the problem. It doesn't affect my privacy to have a machine check whether my face matches the picture on my ID instead of having a person do it. If it says that's not me, then a human double checks - just like if one TSA guy said "hmmm...that doesn't really look like him, what do you think Fred?" to a co-worker.

    What affects privacy is permanently storing the photo it took of me to do that check, or comparing that photo to photos other than the one on my ID like pictures of wanted criminals. So the bill should simply say that no faces can be stored for more than 24 hours (to allow checking later if it turns out the software screwed up and allowed me to fly with someone else's ID) and faces can only be compared to the face on their ID, not a bunch of other photos that have no bearing on whether I'm who my ID says I am.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The elected representatives are no doubt in the pay of foreign counties that don't want their operatives faces to be scrutinised as they blithely wander through passport control with foreign fake passports on the way to or from an espionage or contract hit. having a means to defeat their expensive fake persona used to carry out international or interstate travel would cause a lot of hassle with them forced to lease private jets from private airfields with the extra paper trail that leaves. Combined with the capability to automatically scan the mobile phone numbers of passengers as they move through fake cell zones on the entrances to the airport whilst scanning their faces. It allows for a much tighter tracking of pedestrian movement and deeper intelligence probe on passengers. The only persons who could desire for this not to occur are those with criminal intent. For managed high security zones such as airports i honestly don't see that there is a problem for identity verification to prevent criminals crossing federal state lines.

    1. Ideasource Bronze badge

      In a perfect world maybe.

      But in the real world when these systems fail to operate with an expected bounds, we want the failsafe to prioritize avoiding harassment of innocent travelers.

      What if you were the person who was sacrificed innocently to prop up a pursuit of criminals you have nothing to do with?

      There's no compensation in the world that can undo the psychological damage, and snowballing repercussions for the rest of your life.

      The foundational justification for laws and law enforcement is to protect the innocent from harm.

      If those who pursue criminals endanger the innocent and cause harm they no different than the criminals in what they represent to society.

      If society is to sacrifice the innocent to pursue the guilty then there's no one to protect and so justify the horrifics of control involved in law system in the first place.

      Rendering the whole situation as nonsensical.

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