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Could be 25 years before TSA gets facial recognition in all US airports

Administrators say security fee diversion hobbling biometrics implementation
Could be 25 years before TSA gets facial recognition in all US airports

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) foresees significant delays in implementing facial recognition across U.S. airports if revenue continues to be diverted from the agency, according to a report from NextGov. In comments made to a House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security hearing, Head TSA Administrator David Pekoske says $1.6 billion collected through the 9/11 security fee, instituted after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and intended to fund TSA security, has been diverted – and, unless that is fixed, facial recognition at airports will have to wait 25 years.

That’s right: if the taps don’t turn on for the TSA, they say, it will take until 2049 to get facial recognition – which Pekoske says “increases performance in this critical first element of checkpoint screening” – up and running in airports across the U.S.

The TSA’s first facial recognition Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) devices at airports rolled out in 2022. To date, the TSA has deployed more than 2000 terminals at more than 80 airports, 313 of those in fiscal year 2023. Some of those are CAT2 upgrades that accept mobile driver’s licenses for facial matching.

“At the rate of investment in the FY25 request, which is $9 million, our capital investment plan shows this project will be completed in 2049,” Pekoske says. But he is no pessimist, pointing out that additional funds would allow the TSA to engage and activate vendors and processes it already has in place, with the potential to have facial recognition at more than 400 airports by 2030. Besides, the diversion is scheduled to expire at the end of fiscal year 2027. Pekoske says if the money starts flowing to TSA again, the agency “could get the identity verification project done in 2033.”

Biometrics gaining ground as convenience becomes clear

Pekoske has also been making media rounds, appearing on CBS Mornings to talk about how biometrics, facial recognition, digital identity and other new technologies are transforming travel and to proclaim that “it’s the future because it’s so much more effective than a manual comparison. This is better for security. It will be better for efficiency.” He also stresses the privacy angle. “We don’t retain the data that you provide for more than a few seconds. We have no plans to surveil and the technology is not capable of surveillance. So our use case is to verify identity full stop.”

Major airports such as LAX already use biometric systems. Delta and United Airlines are testing biometric bag checking. Ken Cornic, the president of Clear, which operates paid facial recognition lanes at U.S. airports alongside the TSA lanes, says facial recognition is “becoming ubiquitous” as the public embraces the convenience, and builds trust in the technology. “It is clear we’re on the side of the American traveler,” Cornic says, “and we believe that anything that enhances efficiency is good for everybody.”

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