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January 26, 2024 26 mins

Robert and Garrison accost a TSA spokesman to discuss their new, sketchy plans for facial recognition cameras in airports. 

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
All Zone media.

Speaker 2 (00:04):
Hey everybody, Robert Evans here, Welcome back to It Could
Happen Here, a podcast about things falling apart and coping
with dystopia. And one of the first signs of our
dystopia coming to be was the establishment of the TSA
and the Department of Homeland Security more broadly, obviously DHS
much more problematic than just the TSA. We did a

(00:27):
couple of episodes on them with Behind the Bastards back
in the day. But you know, the TSA came to
be right after nine to eleven, and both its establishment,
you know, the seeming necessity of it, and the kind
of impositions into personal privacy that it made commonplace. We're
both harbingers of the very fucked up era we find

(00:48):
ourselves in now. And the TSA is an interesting law
enforcement agency to me from the perspective of a normal person.
I think they're kind of the least objectionable of our
federal law enforce spin agencies, right They at least, I
should say, of all of the cops that we have
in this country, they're the ones you're least likely to
have a serious problem with, right, Like, they're not real

(01:09):
cops in the way that most cops are. They don't
like ticket or arrest you generally, unless you're one of
the startling number of Americans who gets caught with a
loaded handgun trying to go through airport security. Mostly, and
I've flown way more often than I want to remember.
Mostly my experience with TSA agents is they check your ID,
you know, they stare at an X ray machine where

(01:31):
your shit goes through it. Sometimes they alert and swab
some stuff. But you know, for me, it's usually not
that big a deal. For most people, I know it's
not that big a deal obviously, you know, the degree
to which it's a problem is going to vary widely
depending on whether or not you're a white dude. But
that said, still less potential for things going horribly violently

(01:52):
wrong and with a lot of police interactions. So I'll
give them that. And it's interesting to me that kind
of given this fact, the TSA is so hated, not
by I think most Americans. I think we're all kind
of frustrated by them. We know, you know, they're not
great at their jobs. They get caught in tests, letting
shit through all the time. It's kind of a pain

(02:14):
in the butt. But there's a chunk of Americans who
fucking hate the TSA, and they hate it because of
how invasive it is. And it's a little weird if
you're a regular person, because going through airport security is
still less invasive than like applying for an apartment, which
a lot of people do more regularly than they fly,
or taking a trip to the DMV, which again a

(02:34):
lot of people do more regularly than they fly. But people,
you know, with money, upper middle class and rich people,
that's where you really get most of the hate from
the TSA. Now, obviously there's some from principled libertarians, and
I tend to think they have a point there, but
there's a lot of people who really hate the TSA
specifically because it's kind of the only law enforcement friction

(02:56):
they deal with on a day to day basis. You know,
they live in a neighbor hood where they're not getting
pulled over. You know, the cops their job is not
to fuck with the people who have money, So the
only time they're going to get padded down and deal
with that thing that is a pretty common experience for
Americans and a lot of cities is when they go
through the airport. When they fly, and they also fly

(03:16):
often because they have more money. So I find myself
in this interesting position when reporting on the TSA of
there's real abuses there, there's a lot of real threats there.
The fact that they do get so much up in
our business and that we've normalized it is an issue.
And at the same time, like I always know when
I do something like this, the people who get angriest

(03:37):
about whatever I write about the TSA are going to
be the worst pieces of shit in the country. So
it's a fun balancing act. Now, obviously, as I'm trying
not to gloss over, there are some really good reasons
to be pissed at the TSA, like this twenty fifteen
story from Denver of several agents who were caught running
a groping scam. Basically, one female crew member would point

(03:57):
out the men that she found attractive, and a colleague
would signal that person out for a pat down, and
they basically say, like, oh, it's alerting something around your
growing or inner thighs, so that like she could bottle them. Essentially,
Now these people got fired. The TSA went after them
when they got caught, but who knows how many people
they groped in the interim period. Video in twenty twenty

(04:18):
three caught TSA agents at Miami International Airport stealing from
passenger bags in the security lines. There's like footage of it. Obviously,
the people who do this are going to be very,
very stupid, because, like you know, as a tsagent, there's
cameras all over the place. You're in the fucking TSA,
and the video is just this guy like reaching his
hand into a bag pulling out cash. It's not hard

(04:42):
to find headlines that are similar though, going back about
as long as the TSA has existed, what interests me
more are the massive violations of privacy and the potential
involvement of the TSA and their normalization of those invasions
of privacy has in the expansion of the survey state.
So this year at CEES twenty twenty four, when we

(05:03):
found out the TSA had a booth and they were
there to talk about their new facial recognition scanners, Garrison
and I had to go check it out, and the
interview that we conducted is going to kind of be
the heart of this episode, but I wanted to get
over a little bit more of a preamble first, So
the TSA started testing facial recognition scanners on a voluntary

(05:24):
basis at sixteen domestic airports, and I think twenty twenty
two they expanded it to twenty five airports or so
last year twenty twenty three, they are in twenty seven now,
according to what we were told by a representative, and
the goal is for this technology to go nationwide. Obviously,
not everyone is thrilled with that idea. And I'm going

(05:45):
to quote from a June twenty twenty three article on
CBS News. Five US senators sent a letter demanding the
TSA halt the program. You don't have to compromise people's
biometric security in order to provide physical security at airports,
said Senor ed Marky. Pokowski, who is the TSA representative,
says he agrees with senators and that he wants to

(06:06):
protect privacy for every passenger. I want to deploy technology
that's accurate and doesn't disadvantage anybody. Privacy advocates worry about
the lack of regulations around facial recognition and its tendency
to be less accurate with people of color. Most images
are deleted after use, but some information is encrypted and retained.
For up to twenty four months as part of the

(06:26):
ongoing review of how the technology performs. What's left out
of that article is that the TSA is also allowed
to maintain biometric data taken from non citizens people entering
the country from foreign countries, migrants and the like, and
they're able to keep that and share it. It's kind
of unclear the extent of that, but they're not bound
by the same rules with those people that they are

(06:46):
for citizens. And there are other issues as well, as
we'll get into. So Garrison and I were with excited
to have a chance to chat with a TSA representative.
This guy was less excited to see us, and we
will get into that story, but before we do, it's
time for an ad break and we're back. So Garrison

(07:16):
and I show up at the CEES booth and it's
kind of a small one. You might imagine it's about
the size of like three normal office cubicles. Maybe there's
a couple of tables. There's like a little podium thing
in the front that's got their logo on it. They
have some stickers, including one that's like it's like peanut
butter is a liquid and it's a cartoon of peanut butter,

(07:39):
which I was informed when I commented on it by
one of the TSA people that yes, peanut butter is
a liquid, which is one of those things that it's
both absurd and also like, well, actually, I don't know
how else you'd categorize peanut butter if you're the TSA.
So I guess it's something I can't have much of
an issue with cream. But is a cream different from
a liquid? I don't know. That's for the philosopher to decide.

(08:01):
So Garrison and I come up to this booth and
there's a guy standing behind the pode. I mean, the
way stuff works at CEES is you have generally a
mix of actual officers from the company. Sometimes it'll be
like a CEO or an executive in the case of
a smaller company. Other times it'll be regular employees or
like engineers and stuff who can answer technical questions, and

(08:23):
then a bunch of Most of the people that you
talk to are like pr reps. I don't know who
the guy was that was at the booth when we
first showed up, because as soon as we said we
wanted to talk about their facial recognition cameras he saw
were media, and he instantly did the pr equivalent of
throwing his buddy on a grenade. He like backed off.
He was like, let me get something for you. He

(08:43):
pulled his coworker over and then he fucking vanished, And
I'm going to play you a little bit of audio
of that.

Speaker 3 (08:50):
We're interested in what you have here in terms of
facial recognition.

Speaker 4 (08:53):
It's the cat too right over there.

Speaker 3 (08:55):
Yeah, yeah, absolutely, what are you saying because I know
right now, like if you've got pre check or oh gosh,
what's the other one the independent company.

Speaker 4 (09:03):
That were live on a live interview?

Speaker 3 (09:05):
Now, I thought, so, I mean he came up to
ask to talk to a TSA.

Speaker 4 (09:09):
Okay, sure then yeah, sure, hang on just a second.

Speaker 2 (09:14):
So the guy we found ourselves in front of was
our Carter Langston, who is actually the press secretary of
the TSA, and by god, I don't know if I've
ever seen a man less happy to see me. Eventually
we started talking, and I have to give Carter credit
for professionalism. His eyes said I despise you both on principle,
and I am enraged to be doing this, But his

(09:35):
voice remained calm, even and his responses were to be
quite honest, pretty polished.

Speaker 3 (09:41):
I'm kind of interested in sort of how you see
this altering the way we do air travel over the
next five ten years, right because obviously, right now people
are using facial recognition if they have pre check or
they have I'm spacing the name, but you know the
independent company that does get you pass the line and
stuff like they do like facial recognition when you are

(10:02):
in the airport. Is this something that you see as
coming more broadly to like everybody going through security in the.

Speaker 4 (10:08):
Future, eventually, eventually.

Speaker 5 (10:13):
So right now it's at twenty seven participating airports, and
it's not at every single we call them travel.

Speaker 4 (10:20):
Document Checker podiums.

Speaker 5 (10:22):
It's not at every single checker Travel Document checkerdum TDC
for sure, but it is growing and becoming We're deploying
more and more as as funding becomes available for we're
using facial recognition to identify passengers. It's a significant.

Speaker 4 (10:50):
Improvement over the.

Speaker 5 (10:53):
Previous way we were identifying passengers, just with the human interaction,
looking at an high decredidential and looking at it based
on what that individual knows about the fifty states and
territories and how they could what their credentials look like

(11:13):
the technology actually takes that over and does a much
better job of evalidating the authenticity of that ID. And
then the facial recognition component with a picture still image,
taking a picture of the passenger standing in front of
the travel document checker podium and then matching that picture

(11:39):
of that person standing there live against the credential photo
and making the match that way, so we know that
the credential is valid, it's it's true, it's accurate. We
know that the person standing there is also the person
on the credential. We can verify the boarding status and

(12:05):
the screening status of that individual and can provide them
with where they should go next for their screening because
the officer is able to discern based on all of
the information provided at the back end of the monitor
that they reviewed.

Speaker 4 (12:25):
They can see all of those.

Speaker 5 (12:28):
Items have been checked, there's a boarding status, and there's
a screening status, and then just tells the passenger where
to go to follow up for screening.

Speaker 3 (12:38):
So I'm interested in how someone how someone becomes basically
enrolled in this right because my assumption is at this point,
just the picture you get when you're getting your driver's
license or your state ID from the DMV is not
sufficient for a facial recognition system, right, simply having the
picture in the government space. You need to have somebody
to like get their face scaled and their irises scand

(13:01):
or something like that in order to have them in
the system.

Speaker 4 (13:03):
Right, it's not in the system at all.

Speaker 5 (13:06):
So with the way we're rolling these out at airports
and check blinds is once a passenger has been identified.

Speaker 4 (13:15):
And that.

Speaker 5 (13:18):
And goes into screening, all of the information that was
captured is gone. We don't store any of the pictures
participation right now, it's completely volatile.

Speaker 3 (13:31):
UH.

Speaker 4 (13:32):
Their signage right there at the.

Speaker 5 (13:34):
Checker podium UH to indicate that passengers can opt out,
they don't have to participate it and all that. All
it happens at that point is the same officer will
UH will turn basically over to the alternative process, review

(14:03):
the ID, review the boarding pass and allow the passenger.

Speaker 4 (14:07):
To continue too easy.

Speaker 5 (14:10):
So if you don't lose their place in line, and
they don't, they're not delayed in any way from getting
screen But.

Speaker 3 (14:19):
In terms of like the people who choose to use it, right,
So if you if you're in this system, is it
literally just comparing your face to the face on the
I D. You're not like enrolled separately the way you
are if you are in like pre check or somewhere.

Speaker 4 (14:33):
Okay, No, it's not.

Speaker 5 (14:35):
There's not a database associated mats and so no, that's
that's not our use. Now, some of the airlines have
partnered with us, they saw benefit in it, and they're
using similar technology for backdrop for their Frequent Flyer Miles

(14:56):
program participants. So that is there's a database associated with
that obviously, and so those.

Speaker 4 (15:07):
Passengers are company.

Speaker 5 (15:12):
Have an entirely different experience. But the way that we're
using it at the checkpoint, as I just said, for
identity verification.

Speaker 2 (15:23):
God n you caught that right how he says participation
is voluntary right now. Well, I hadn't come across this
information at the time, but afterwards I read a fascinating
Washington Post article from last summer about Portland Senator Jeff Murkley.
Jeff Murkley says that when he was trying to make
a flight at Reagan International Airport, he was told that

(15:43):
if he didn't verify his ID via face scanner, he
would face a significant delay. Quote from the article. There
was no delay, the spokeswoman said the senator showed his
photo ID to the TSA agent in cleared security, so
basically he was lied to. Somebody lied and said, you're
going to if you don't want to like delayed and
maybe miss your flight, you have to submit to a
face scan, which is one of the things that privacy

(16:05):
advocates were worried about from the beginning. But you know what,
privacy advocates aren't worried about the products and services that
support this podcast and we're back, So I think when

(16:27):
it gets right down to it, the silliest part of
all of this to me is that the TSA isn't
even claiming they need to run faces through like some
futuristic database of terrorists, right like they want to scan
our faces so they know if this like bad guy
they're tracking is in the airport in disguised using a
fake passport or something that's not actually what it does.
Facial recognition the TSA is using right now at least

(16:52):
just takes the place of the TSA guy. You hand
your ID before you go put your shit in bins,
right like, you know, you go up and before you
can go take your stuff out of your bags and
put it in those bins. You hand a guy your license,
sometimes your license and boarding pass, he looks at it
in your face. If you wear at a mask, he
tolls you to take it down for a second and
then he lets you go in. Right, that's what the
facial recognition scanners are actually doing here. That Washington Post

(17:16):
article also cites an anti facial recognition activist, Tijuana Petty,
who says that she was told by a TSA agent
at the same airport, Reagan, that undergoing facial recognition scanning
was not optional. So people are already being told this
is a requirement. And obviously, as a spoiler for where
this goes, the bigger, deeper question is like how long

(17:37):
is that going to be the case?

Speaker 4 (17:38):
Right?

Speaker 2 (17:39):
So you know that's kind of the big concern, right,
is that they're saying it's optional now, it obviously won't
be forever, and some people are just going to be
told they don't have a choice, Like that's kind of bullying,
strong arming people, threatening that they'll miss their flight if
they don't submit to it, which makes me extra suspicious
about their data retention. Right, And that is the question
we asked as the interview went on, where is the TSAs?

(18:02):
But where is the TSA's biometric data or really, where
is passenger biometric data actually going to go once the
TSA has it?

Speaker 6 (18:11):
In terms of the just information storage is there? I
know I've been seeing more of these like signs the
more that I travel. I do it decent traveling for
these for these sorts of systems. And I'm curious with
how this works for non US citizens if because I
know there's there's certain at least in some of the

(18:31):
technology that's being used by customers of border patrol. They
do store images captured of non US citizens for a
certain time period.

Speaker 2 (18:39):
They do take pictures.

Speaker 6 (18:40):
Of US citizens when entering the country, and lots of
lots of airports. Are are these two systems interacting at all?
Or is the TSA system and customers about customs and
voter patrol system more separated?

Speaker 5 (18:53):
Well, first of all, I can't speak for Customs and
Border protection, but I can tell you that we're we
have two very different use cases. So their use case
is very much oriented in the customs arena, and then
ours is as I just.

Speaker 4 (19:10):
Mentioned, at the checkpoint.

Speaker 5 (19:12):
And solely for the identity verification and if an international
passenger comes in with a credential.

Speaker 4 (19:24):
That identifies them.

Speaker 5 (19:27):
Then the unit would obviously accept that credential.

Speaker 4 (19:33):
It's a photo, it's a photo credential.

Speaker 5 (19:35):
So again, all that the system would do is validay
that that person on that credential is also the same
person that's standing right there in front of the travel
document checker.

Speaker 2 (19:48):
Okay, most of you are probably aware of this, but
the TSA actually does not have a good record of
protecting private data. Now this is not old Man Robert
being a libertarian, it's just documented history. The TSA INDI
claimed their full body scanners, which took what are essentially
naked pictures of passengers, never stored photos and couldn't transmit them.
But in twenty ten this was revealed to be a

(20:09):
lie when we gained access to documents that included technical
specifications and vendor contracts which indicated the TSA required vendors
of these scanners to provide equipment that can store and
send images of screen passengers. Now this was supposed to
only be in testing mode, but if it can store
and send images of screened passengers, it can store and
send images of screened passengers. In twenty twelve, a former

(20:33):
TSA agent accused his coworkers of saving nude body images
of passengers from the body scanner and making fun of
them in back rooms. He said that safeguards were put
in place to ensure the agents manning the scanners never
saw the people they were scanning outside of the scanner,
but that these policies were frequently violated. Basically, every privacy
policy they had was frequently violated by agents so that

(20:55):
they could make fun of people's dicks. Right, that's the story.
The TSA retired its old scanners the next year, replacing
them with a device that showed less detail and particularly
provided agents with less clear looks at people's dongs. In
twenty twenty one, a TSA agent in Minneapolis was accused
by airport police of taking dozens of photos of young
women going through flight screening. The TSA's record here, both

(21:17):
in terms of the agency itself and in terms of
its employees, is certainly not worse than numerous police departments
right or the FBI. This is something to keep in mind.
As frustrating as all this stuff is, literally every local
and city law enforcement agency has worse cases, and by gods,
so do the FEDS could make a case that as

(21:38):
frustrating as a lot of this is the TSA is
less of a threat to privacy than most other federal
law enforcement agencies. But that's beside the point. For one thing,
normalizing facial recognition technology in the airports is a step
towards normalizing it everywhere. The data that is gathered will
not always be deleted, and more to the point, there's

(21:58):
no way to know that the system isn't going to
expand in directions that we all find deeply uncomfortable as
it goes on. That's why you kind of have to
nip this stuff in the bud, especially since they're not
really promising extra security here. When you look at the
scandals of the TSA, a lot of it has to
do with the fact that they'll be getting tested by
some other law enforcement agency to see if they can

(22:19):
sneak shit through, right, and the TSAO let a bunch
of guns or a fake bomb or whatever through because
people aren't paying attention. Facial scanners aren't going to catch that,
and it's kind of unclear to me what they are
going to catch. My other bigger issue is that even
though they say they're going to throw away biometric data,
they're not going to keep it more than twenty four
hours outside of special situations, which they do kind of

(22:42):
leave themselves an end there. The fact that they say
they're deleting this stuff doesn't mean they are going to
delete that stuff. And I brought up this troubling history
of lack of respect for privacy, violations of privacy by
TSA agents in the past within the context of this
new system. And I want to play Carter's answer for you.

Speaker 3 (23:00):
I am curious. You know there were a couple five
or six years a couple of cases stories that grew
up of pictures images of passengers who were on the
body scanners being shared, right like that's there were for
a couple of scandals about that. Had that influenced your
attitudes on the data attention policy that should exist for

(23:23):
the facial recognition of.

Speaker 5 (23:24):
This So first tell you that we follow the National
Institute of National Institute of Standards and Technology their guidelines
and standards to a tu Not only that we publish
online our privacy impact assessments, so there are we're very

(23:52):
transparent in our use of this technology, how we're using it,
what we're using it for. And again it's completely voluntary.
Nothing is stored similar and it's simply.

Speaker 4 (24:09):
Which is really the Lynch Transportation security Yeah, I mean
we've got to know that was and who.

Speaker 5 (24:16):
We're Vegas going mind into the secure area of an
airpoilt is in fact it's a person that.

Speaker 4 (24:24):
They say that.

Speaker 2 (24:26):
So yeah, that's more or less how the conversation ended.
Carter was very happy to see us go, and I
don't think Garrison or I were particularly surprised by anything
we heard, but I did find it interesting that he
kind of confirmed the goal is eventually for this to
not just be everywhere, but be something that you can't
opt out of. And I do partly wonder how much

(24:49):
of that is them looking for a way to get
more data on people, maybe even to share to other
law enforcement agencies, and how much of that is kind
of the same reason all a lot of you know,
AI style technology and kind of facial recognition does sort
of fall under that umbrella. If you're going to have
a general intelligence, one thing it has to be able

(25:09):
to do is recognize people's faces. So it is a
piece of that and I think that, just like a
lot of other applications of that kind of technology, are
inevitably used to cut workforces. That's kind of probably the
chief thing the TSA is looking to use it to do. Right,
If you can replace the guy who has to look
at your idea, or at least most of them, with
facial recognition scanners that do the same thing, then you

(25:32):
can save on your budget. Right now. The downside of that,
maybe to us. The upside is it could be faster.
The downside, of course, is there's a really good chance
it won't be. The robot will be even more racist
than an ESA agent might be. You know, it's one
less chance to deal with a human with whom you
might be able to talk something through. Anyway. Well, I'll
see where this goes, but for today, this has been

(25:52):
it could happen here, and I have been Robert Evans.

Speaker 1 (26:01):
It could happen here, as a production of cool Zone Media.
For more podcasts from cool Zone Media, visit our website
coolzonemedia dot com, or check us out on the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can
find sources for It could Happen Here, updated monthly at
Coolzonmedia dot com slash sources. Thanks for listening,

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