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Airport biometrics bans proposed in US state and federal legislation

Clear and TSA face lawmaker pushback as more CAT2s are deployed
Airport biometrics bans proposed in US state and federal legislation

Biometric access control and airport security screening company Clear is facing legislative pushback in California from lawmakers who say that the system discriminates between the haves and have-nots. At the same time, a pair of federal Senators are attempting to block the Transportation Security Administration’s biometric traveler verification program, even as it reaches new airports and seeks funding to expand nationwide.

California considers grounding Clear

Clear’s program allows customers to pay US$189 a year to verify their identity with biometrics and skip through TSA lines. The line-skipping, however, has proved sufficiently irksome for legislators to propose a bill that prohibits third-party vendors such as Clear to use standard and TSA security lanes at state airports. According to the new rules, Clear would be forced to set up dedicated lanes.

This week, the bill passed the Senate Transportation Committee, CNN reports.

Senator Josh Newman, who introduced the bill, says that airport security experience should not depend on a traveler’s income and willingness to pay. But although the legislation enjoys support both from Republicans and Democrats, industry groups are pushing back.

The California Chamber of Commerce, TechNet, the California Travel Association and other groups have expressed their disagreement, arguing that a ban would contradict current airport concession laws as well as bring economic losses and slower lanes for passengers. Six major airlines, including Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United, are also opposed to the bill, citing revenue losses, according to Politico.

Supporting the bill are TSA agents and flight attendants who argue that Clear is a pay-to-play system.

Clear currently provides identity verification services at more than 50 airports.

Senators target TSA program from a new angle

The use of facial recognition technology, however, worries some lawmakers at the federal level. In November 2023, a group of legislators led by Republican Senator John Kennedy and Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley introduced legislation that would require TSA to end its program and acquire congressional approval before deploying facial recognition. That legislation, the Traveler Privacy Protection Act, has remained with the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation since.

But now, Merkley and Kennedy have introduced the ban on TSA’s biometrics initiatives, including the rollout of its next-generation credential authentication technology (CAT) as an amendment to a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The U.S. Travel Association says the Senators are “attempting to spike checkpoint wait times, waste taxpayer dollars, increase (the) prevalence of fake identification.” The Association quotes former Homeland Security Committee and DHS officials saying that biometrics are important to aviation security and that the system is popular with travelers.

TSA says that its machines are compliant with President Joe Biden’s October 2023 executive order on the safe and secure development of AI and the guidance on the federal government’s use of AI. The policy ensures that travelers can opt out of TSA’s facial recognition without suffering delays, the agency confirmed for trade publication Nextgov.

“We’ve already been doing this since day one of deploying these second generation CAT units – these CAT-2s with the camera – and we’ve already had these safeguards in place,” says TSA Spokesperson Alexa Lopez.

Once a passenger has gone through facial recognition screening, their photos are overwritten. Lopez also noted that TSA does not use the technology to replace human decision-making, nor does it use biometrics capture at checkpoints to refine its matching algorithms.

TSA adding more ID verification machines

TSA is hoping to increase its budget in the upcoming year, with the agency requesting a total of US$11.8 billion for fiscal 2025.

This includes US$9.3 million for procuring CAT2s, which are used for ID authentication, reservation verification and flight pre-screening. The agency says that its current security screeners satisfy 57 percent of its needs and that it requires more than 3,500 additional CAT machines to reach full operational capability.

TSA is currently rolling out new and improved CAT2 units equipped with facial recognition capabilities with plans to cover 400 airports in the coming years, following Idemia $128M contract win last April. This month, the agency has deployed CAT2s at JFK International Airport in New York and Pittsburgh International Airport.

In partnership with airlines, the agency has also been expanding the TSA PreCheck Touchless ID service which allows passengers to join by submitting selfie biometrics. And more new technology may be on the way.

During April, TSA administrator David Pekoske met with companies such as Apple and Google to discuss new technologies and innovation. The agency discussed state-issued digital IDs and their use at the security checkpoint for identity verification. The TSA is working with the tech to allow travelers to identify themselves with IDs stored on their phones at airports.

Pekoske also talked about collaboration with the Defense Innovation Unit, a Department of Defense (DoD) organization focused on sourcing and evaluating emerging technologies. Among other organizations TSA visited this month were the Lawrence Livermore National Labs and In-Q-Tel (IQT), a not-for-profit venture capital firm.

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