Will Biometric Security Change How You Travel?

TSA is introducing fingerprint technology and facial recognition.

By Lisa Cheng

Fingerprint technology, facial recognition, biometric terminals—the Transit Security Administration (TSA) is beginning to change how passengers are screened for both domestic and international flights, putting a greater emphasis on biometric technology designed to enhance security and reduce the need for passports, paper tickets, and other physical documents. TSA’s plans include partnering with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on biometric security for international travel as well as putting that technology into use for TSA Precheck travelers and devising an opt-in system for regular domestic passengers.

The implementation of these new tools is already in progress: JetBlue began testing biometric boarding in Boston in 2017 and has since expanded the program to select flights leaving from JFK, in New York City; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Washington D.C’s Reagan National Airport. Delta debuted the first biometric terminal in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on December 1, 2018. Meanwhile, the Orlando International Airport, in Florida, will be the first to deploy boarding lanes with facial-recognition scanners at all international gates. And as of September 2018, applicants for TSA Precheck or enrollees who renew their membership are required to provide a photograph of themselves that TSA can use to test out facial-biometric technology. While fingerprint technology is part of TSA’s expansion, particularly for trusted passengers, most travelers will eventually see facial-recognition scanners at check-in, bag drops, e-gates, or security checkpoints.

This transition will take time, so be sure to check with the airports your traveling to and from for the most current information. (For now, you may want to look into REAL ID.)

Here’s a primer on what to expect.

Is biometric technology for everyone?

All passengers have access to the expedited screening process that incorporates biometric technology, but its use is completely optional. As an alternative, travelers can choose the standard screening methods of presenting identification documents and boarding passes to security officers. Note: Fingerprints and photographs may be taken as an entry and exit requirement for foreign visitors to the U.S.

How do the facial-recognition scanners work?

Facial-recognition scanners were designed to be easy to use. Passengers just need to approach the camera and follow the prompts on the screen; the device takes an image of the passenger’s face and compares it with CBP’s database. Once records are verified, a green light indicates that the traveler has been cleared.

Are the scanners always accurate?

The technology has a 97 to 98 percent match rate, but sometimes identical twins and children under the age of 14, whose faces may have altered due to growth, can produce false results. (If recognition fails, the air carrier will conduct a standard manual verification process. If fraud is suspected, the carrier will notify a CBP officer to provide further inspection.) Gate agents may instruct passengers to remove large hats, thick-rimmed glasses, or other accessories that obstruct facial features. For fingerprint analyses, the machines may have difficulty getting a reading from manual workers or people who work with chemicals.

What happens to my data? Should I be concerned about privacy?

For U.S. citizens, photos are deleted once identities are verified. For noncitizens, photos are retained for up to 14 days and stored in CBP’s system for 75 years; data is not shared with airports, airlines, or other third parties and is used for identification purposes only. The Department of Homeland Security publishes Privacy Impact Assessments on the traveler-verification program. You can also keep up-to-date on the latest privacy issues at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For more information, go to the TSA or the CBP websites.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: December 2018