Racial bias in facial recognition software: What travelers should know as TSA, CBP expand programs
Federal government researchers found evidence of bias against minorities in facial recognition software as its use is set to expand at airport security checkpoints.
The Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been testing facial recognition technology at airports across the county, expecting it will become the preferred method to verify a passenger's identity.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology reported this month that facial recognition software showed a higher rate of incorrect matches between two photos for Asian and black people relative to white people.
Researchers studied the performance of 189 algorithms from 99 manufacturers representing most of the industry. Some algorithms performed better than others, they concluded, meaning that it's likely the industry can correct the problems.
The institute found that U.S.-developed algorithms had the highest rate of incorrect matches, or false positives, for American Indians.
Researchers found a higher rate of false identifications of black women when matching their photos to an FBI mugshot database. Higher rates of mismatches increase the chance that a person could be falsely accused, the institute said.
Patrick Grother, a computer scientist at the institute and the report's primary author, said some mismatches can be resolved with a second attempt, such as checking a passport. However, he said, "a false positive in a one-to-many search puts an incorrect match on a list of candidates that warrant further scrutiny.”
"TSA’s facial recognition system will be for passenger identification and to determine the appropriate level of screening only," spokesman Mark Howell said. "TSA understands the variety of concerns related to facial recognition match performance and takes this issue seriously."
CBP uses the technology to screen arriving international passengers at 12 U.S. airports and exiting international passengers at 26 U.S. airports.
Additionally, CBP uses it for entry at cruise ports in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Washington state.
Both agencies plan to expand the use of the technology to screen passengers. It could speed up the process, allowing for shorter wait times for passengers and enabling security personnel to better focus their attention.
"Facial recognition is going to replace that interaction with the TSA officer," said Brian Jackson, a security researcher at the Rand Corp., a policy research organization.
Grother's team used an assortment of more than 18 million images of about 8.5 million people culled from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
The research adds to concern about the accuracy of the technology, which has potential implications beyond airport security.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union used software developed by Amazon to match photos of all 535 members of Congress against a database of 25,000 publicly available arrest photos.
The software incorrectly matched 28 lawmakers with photos of people who'd been arrested. Nearly 40% of those false matches were nonwhite lawmakers, though minorities make up only 20% of Congress.
Patricia Cogswell, the TSA's acting deputy administrator, told House lawmakers in October that the agency wanted "a very highly probable match" in its developing biometric screening process.
"We are not matching you against mugshots," she told a House Homeland Security subcommittee. "If you don’t match, we go back to the regular process."
Though there may be lingering concerns about the accuracy of facial recognition technology, travelers may decide it's worth the trade-off if they can save a few minutes.
"Opting out will always have a time cost," Jackson said. "There’s certainly a convenience benefit to it."
Curtis Tate, USA Today