New York Post, December 8, 2022
Why would any law-abiding American balk at permitting the feds to vacuum up his biometric data at the airport? The Transportation Security Administration is running a pilot program in which travelers stand in photo kiosks that compare their faces with a federal database of photos from passport applications, driver’s licenses, and other sources. TSA promises its new airport regime, which could vastly expand next year, will respect Americans’ privacy.
If you believe that, I can sell you a bridge in Brooklyn really cheap.
TSA has long been one of the most intrusive and inept federal agencies. For 20 years, every TSA boondoggle has been shielded by a bodyguard of bureaucratic lies.
“Trust us” is the TSA mantra for the new program. “TSA hasn’t actually released hard data about how often its system falsely identifies people, through incorrect positive or negative matches,” The Washington Post notes. TSA will be relying on photo-identification systems that have a misidentification error rate up to 100 times higher for blacks and Hispanics.
TSA has had plenty of profiling debacles, including targeting black males with backward baseball caps in Boston. At the Newark airport, TSA agents fabricated false charges against Hispanics to boost the program’s arrest numbers.
The TSA scanning system could be a big step towards a Chinese-style “social credit” system that could restrict travel by people the government doesn’t like. Actually, TSA has already been caught doing that. In 2018, The New York Times exposed a secret watchlist for anyone TSA labels “publicly notorious.” TSA critics to the end of the line — forever?
The Brennan Center for Justice warned that TSA could add “pretty much anyone with even a modest public profile, such as journalists or activists,” to that list. But this program is a peril not only to reporters with a bad attitude. A TSA honcho told Congress that any traveler whose behavior was “concerning” could qualify for the list. “Concerning behavior” is vague enough to add 10,000 chumps a day to the watchlist.
But what harm could there be in permitting TSA to scrutinize people’s faces? TSA already spent a billion dollars on behavior detection officers who furtively circulated in airports to detect travelers who were sweating, hand-wringing, yawning, staring too intently, or avoiding eye contact. The inspector general said the program was a complete waste of money and never caught any terrorists.
TSA’s Behavior Detection program was such a fiasco that a few years ago, TSA launched a new program — Quiet Skies — that assigns federal air marshals to arbitrarily target passengers who become suspects because they changed clothes or shaved while in the airport, among other tripwires. Air marshals stalk their prey to see if they fidget, have a “cold, penetrating stare” or emit “strong body odor.” Marshals are given a file and photo of their targets and document any “significant derogatory information” on suspects, including whether they have “gained weight” or are “balding.” (My cover is blown!) Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) blasted the program — which hasn’t caught any terrorists — as “the very definition of ‘Big Brother.’”
Trust the TSA? When the agency rolled out its whole-body scanners a dozen years ago, it claimed the pictures would not reveal travelers’ intimate details. But the scans are so detailed that they expose hernias, breast implants, and whether guys are circumcised — or potential porn stars.
TSA claimed the scanners were vital for security but an inspector general report revealed that the scanners failed 95% of the time to detect smuggled weapons and mock explosives. Thanks to TSA’s inept scanners, women are sometimes forced to pull down their pants and underwear to expose their blood-stained menstrual pads.
While TSA could soon compel Americans to stand in kiosks for pictures that could be added to its dossier, the agency has permitted up to 1,000 illegal aliens to board domestic flights this year merely by showing arrest warrants they received from the Department of Homeland Security as documentation. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) howled, “This dystopian inversion exceeds the point of absurdity where radical open-border policies attempt to accomplish the very opposite of DHS’s core mission: apprehending those who cross our borders illegally.”
Will the new facial-recognition software be programmed to trigger an alert for anyone who radiates disdain for the TSA? (Damn! Caught again.) Will folks who look too ornery for their own good be taken behind closed doors for a TSA “enhanced patdown” that exhausts their annual profanity quota? The Washington Post warned in 2019 that airport facial-recognition systems are “America’s biggest step yet to normalize treating our faces as data that can be stored, tracked and, inevitably, stolen” (as happened to DHS facial records in 2019).
Rather than permitting TSA to inflict another high-tech intrusion on travelers, America needs to privatize airport security like most European nations and Canada have done. After pointlessly groping millions of Americans, TSA has never caught a terrorist and has no excuse for groping millions more. As CNN political commentator Angela Rye wrote after her grueling checkpoint experience, “Dear TSA: The country is not safer because you grab vaginas.”
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.