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Airport facial recognition battle echoes pushback against Real ID program

Federal ID initiative for air travel launched after 9/11 set to go into effect next year
Airport facial recognition battle echoes pushback against Real ID program

The bipartisan effort by U.S. lawmakers to clamp down on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)’s use of facial recognition for travel screening is fresh news, but at least one of the senators leading the charge is an old hat when it comes to pushing back against developments in identity technology.

According to ABC News, among those arguing that facial recognition in airports poses “significant threats to our privacy and civil liberties” is Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. – who has been voicing his objection to biometric technologies for years. The senator has made numerous attempts to block facial recognition and biometric surveillance by various institutions. The Real ID program is intended to enable the use of driver’s licenses for the same ID verification processes as passports are used for, including face biometrics checks.

Originated in 2005 as a response to the New York terrorist attacks of 2001 and their aftermath, the Real ID Act and its regulations establish “minimum security standards for license issuance and production.” That used to mean Americans needed to verify their identity and citizenship when applying for a driver’s license.

But according to NBC News, with new Department of Homeland Security policies going into effect next year, Real ID will, after years of delays, finally apply to domestic air travel. Travelers will be required to have a Real ID compliant ID. Without one – for instance, with just a standard driver’s license – they will not make it past security.

Various people have been arguing about Real ID from the start. The original deadline for compliance enforcement was 2008. Deadlines in 2020 and 2021 slid past without event, as did the most recent one in May 2023. Now, the DHS’s website announces loud and clear that the deadline for compliance is May 7, 2025. State officials have begun holding press conferences to prepare travelers of the impending change to ID verification rules. This time, it seems, Real ID will actually be real.

But more than a decade and a half after the program’s first deadline, it is worth noting that if Senator Jeff Merkley was pugnacious on Real ID, early indications suggest the pattern will continue with facial recognition. Merkeley has made a political career out of blocking biometrics initiatives. Regardless of how the travel and security industries, the tech community and general public opinion lean, he is likely to continue to stick with what works for him.

Meanwhile, facial recognition systems are currently in use at 84 airports in the U.S. The TSA’s ultimate plan is to expand face biometrics to all of the more than 400 airports that the agency covers.

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