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EFF says TSA facial recognition proposal part of dangerous overreach


The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has issued a “call to action” over a proposal by the U.S. Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) to collect facial images and iris scans under the PreCheck application program, which the EFF says paves the way for “a massive violation of privacy” by the Department of Homeland Security.

As previously reported, the TSA ran a pilot project over the summer to evaluate the use of fingerprints by travellers as a boarding pass and identity document at airports in Denver and Atlanta.

The latest proposal looks to implement a similar system at airports nationwide, and also to expand the biometrics collected under it to include facial images and iris scans.

“The regular collection of biometrics, such as facial images, will provide TSA with the ability to use those biometrics for identity verification at TSA checkpoints, potentially eliminating the need to show identity documents and improving both security and the customer experience,” the proposal states.

The EFF points out that facial recognition technology has used in pilot projects by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at airports and land borders over the past two years, and that CBP stated in Privacy Impact Assessments that U.S. citizens data would be deleted. That practice has changed, EFF says, with CBP expanding the biometric screening process to include U.S. citizens without authorization from congress, and the latest proposal includes retaining their facial images for two weeks, and their travel information for 15 years.

The EFF alleges that the programs, taken together, constitute an effort by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand its biometric data collection and use far beyond the 5 million Americans registered for pre-check through its sub-agencies.

If congress passes the Building America’s Trust Act, DHS would be required to collect biometric information from all people leaving the U.S., providing authorization to the TSA and CBP programs. Meanwhile the TSA Modernization Act, which calls for the deployment of biometric technology, was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in October.

The EFF expresses concerns not just about the collection and use of biometric data by DHS, but also partner organizations in government, like the FBI, and the private sector, such as Idemia, which offers pre-check travellers fast entry to events. It also suggests that the changes could ultimately impinge on constitutionally protected rights.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) urged the TSA to reconsider expanding its biometrics use in July.

Public comment on the TSA program is invited through December 1.

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