The TSA’s use of facial recognition technology, as seen at...

The TSA’s use of facial recognition technology, as seen at a Baltimore airport, has raised privacy concerns. Credit: AP/Julia Nikhinson

Congress is facing a crucial Friday deadline to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration for another five years. This is considered the final “must-pass” measure to be done before the lawmakers return in the fall.

But routine extensions in Washington these days are rarely totally routine. For this one, 14 members of the Senate have signed on to a letter to the chamber’s leaders that essentially says, “Hold on.” Citing civil liberties and privacy concerns, they express skepticism about expanding the use of facial recognition technology at the nation’s airports under the aegis of the Transportation Security Administration.

The technology in question is currently deployed to screen passengers at 84 airports around the country, with gradual introduction reportedly due at some 430 additional airports. The TSA officially explains its current program benignly.

Travelers voluntarily agree to use their face to verify their identity while being screened. They present a passport or other ID. The machinery is used to verify that the person standing at a checkpoint is the same person as in the picture they presented. And the TSA website states: “Photos are not stored or saved after a positive ID match has been made, except in a limited testing environment for evaluation of the effectiveness of the technology.”

That sounds reassuring, but the more skeptical senators from both major parties have questions. They don’t want to give the security agency a blank check to set the rules. Instead, they want to keep the ins and outs of the technology’s usage under congressional oversight. They say they wish to “prohibit TSA’s development and deployment of facial recognition tools until rigorous congressional oversight occurs.”

The TSA responds that the technology “has proven to improve security effectiveness, efficiency, and the passenger experience.”

Surely, policymakers can reach agreement on how to continue the program, examine it for flaws without an endless investigation, and expand on it when there’s a reasonable sense that the public’s liberties are protected. For now, however, the FAA must be reauthorized on time. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the outset of discussions last week, the bill must be passed not only to keep air traffic functioning but to “provide for more air traffic controllers, for more safety inspectors at manufacturing plants, and better customer service standards.”

It’s typical for legislators to try to pile their own conditions into a funding bill. In the D.C. area, for example, local elected officials have a parochial concern. They want to prevent the planned addition of 10 additional flights in and out of Reagan National Airport, citing safety concerns.

The FAA and key members of Congress need to negotiate an understanding that these concerns will be addressed as necessary. For now, they should fund the agency. Blowing Friday’s deadline would only makes things more complicated than they need to be.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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