TSA kicks off facial recognition trial in Las Vegas airport

facial recognition technology (metamorworks/ 

The Transportation Security Administration has launched a 30-day facial recognition trial at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on Aug. 27.

Under the proof-of-concept test, a camera-equipped credential authenticator will compare live images of a traveler with his or her documents "using a proprietary facial matching algorithm" for verification.

The biometric screening is just for test purposes. Passengers who volunteer to participate will still have a TSA screener manually review their travel documents, according to a Department of Homeland Security privacy impact assessment.

"TSA envisions that facial recognition ultimately will deliver a significant increase in passenger throughput and improvement in security at the checkpoint," the privacy document states. "This proof of concept will help determine next steps for implementing further automation of the [travel document checker] process."

Images and biographical data collected during the proof-of-concept will be sent to the DHS Science and Technology Directorate for further evaluation and assessment. According to the privacy assessment, the data is only to be used within the confines of a memorandum of understanding between TSA and S&T and won't be used for other purposes, "including operational uses within DHS."

The McCarran test follows an effort at Los Angeles International Airport in which special electronic security gates were equipped with scanners and cameras. Passengers scanned their passports and boarding passes at the gate, and the system matched names on the documents and a live image to the e-Passport image. The McCarran test doesn't use gates.

Use of biometrics by DHS components to authenticate travelers and border crossers has attracted the attention of lawmakers and privacy groups who worry about a lack of oversight and privacy risks in the collection of data. In late July, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) wrote to acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan to ask why the agency hadn't produced a report required under the FAA Reauthorization Act covering biometrics.

"American travelers deserve to fully understand exactly who has access to their biometric data, how long their data will be held, how their information will be safeguarded, and how they can opt out of this data collection altogether," the senators wrote.

Markey and Lee also noted the breach of a subcontractor website that led to the disclosure of license plate photos and other surveillance data collected under a Customs and Border Protection program.

CBP is running its own set of facial recognition trials in U.S. airports, and it recently detailed plans to integrate facial recognition into its suite of travel and passenger applications in an Aug. 8 contracting notice.

DHS is also advancing a plan for departmentwide integration of biometric data holdings under a new system dubbed Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is planning a review of DHS to consider "operational benefits and privacy and civil liberties concerns arising from the use of biometric technologies in the aviation-security context," according to a PCLOB release.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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