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DHS and TSA adjust digital strategies with biometrics, facial recognition

AI has government agencies pushing innovation on biometrics and digital ID
DHS and TSA adjust digital strategies with biometrics, facial recognition

U.S. government agencies are adapting in real time to a digital landscape transformed by AI, identity fraud, deepfakes and biometric technologies. Following its release of an AI roadmap and the formation of an AI advisory board, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released a first-of-its-kind strategic plan for innovation and R&D. Meanwhile, some say the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not moving fast enough on new tech tools, while others worry its use of facial recognition will lead to mass surveillance.

DHS plan pits biometrics against advanced threats from AI

In its Innovation, Research & Development (IRD) Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2024-2030, DHS “identifies ways to coordinate IRD investments to maximize impacts across our components and missions.” An opening note from Under Secretary for Science and Technology Dr. Dimitri Kusnezov lays out the stakes in urgent terms. “Innovations, such as the rapid development and wide adoption of Artificial Intelligence, are major disruptors of the homeland security enterprise (HSE) and empower our adversaries,” Kusnezov writes.

“IRD initiatives provide DHS the key mechanisms to keep pace with this changing strategic environment. The technologies that emerge from our IRD investments are critical to ensuring our front-line operators have the tools they need to stay ahead of our adversaries and better prepare for and respond to natural hazards.”

Several passages are noteworthy for the biometrics community. “DHS is investigating enhanced biometrics capabilities grounded in rigorous scientific study and analysis to improve identity validation and verification of individuals arriving or departing points of entry on foot or within a vehicle,” says the document, in the section on Objective 2.2: Expedite Lawful Trade and Travel.

Under Objective 3.2: Enforce U.S. Immigration Laws, the document says “IRD is bolstering biometric capabilities to improve screening and vetting to ensure timely and accurate processing, including detection of face morphing or digital alterations to photos on passports or travel documents, while also safeguarding data protection and privacy.”

Biometric identification technology also figures into an objective related to protecting and supporting victims of crime and trauma, and appears in the Strategic Priority Research Area (SPRA) devoted to Digital Identity and Trust. “Digital trust is critical to verifying the validity

of data, maintaining privacy, and ensuring data integrity across multiple platforms and applications,” says the text. “The Digital Identity and Trust SPRA will explore IRD opportunities to achieve this while ensuring approaches do not diminish privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of persons.”

TSA doing well on digital identity but faces wrath on facial recognition

A hearing on the TSA’s proposed budget for 2025 saw stern words from House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security Chairman, Carlos Gimenez (R-FL), in addressing the “painfully slow” timelines on TSA’s adoption of new technology.

“Last year, I raised concern with the painfully slow timelines for TSA’s roll-out of the second generation of credential authentication technology at TSA checkpoints across the country,” Gimenez says. Noting that the project is expected to be completed in Fiscal Year 2049, Gimenez says this is “simply unacceptable.”

Luckily, he is more bullish on digital identity, on which he says the TSA is making “tremendous progress.”

“Through partnerships with states and global tech leaders such as Apple and Google, TSA is working to integrate mobile driver licenses and other forms of digital identification into their security screening process,” he says. “As passenger volumes at airports continue to increase, the role of technology is even more important to ensure checkpoints are operating efficiently and that passengers have plenty of time to make their flights.”

A senator from Oregon is also displeased with the TSA, in this case over its use of facial recognition technology. Following the Senate vote to pass the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act without a vote on his amendment addressing the TSA’s use of facial recognition, Senator Jeff Merkley has issued a blunt – yet not implausible – allegation.

“As I worked with other Senate negotiators to develop a compromise proposal governing TSA’s use of facial recognition, it became abundantly clear that the end goal for TSA is to make facial recognition mandatory for all American air travelers and that the current opt-out system will end,” says Merkeley in a statement. “Facial surveillance creates the foundation for a national surveillance state, and everyone who values privacy, freedom, and our civil rights should be concerned about the increasing, unchecked use of facial recognition technology by the federal government.”

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