Diverting TSA funds hurts deployment of new technology, lawmakers warn

The diversion of Transportation Security Administration funds is hurting the adoption of advanced security technologies, including facial biometrics, several House lawmakers said. Nextgov/FCW.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress created the TSA and gave the agency the authority to levy a tax on travelers, known as the 9/11 Security Surcharge, to fund the agency’s operations.

While the current fee is $11.20 for a round-trip flight, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 redirected one-third of the collected funds to the Treasury Department to help reduce the national deficit. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 subsequently extended the fee through fiscal year 2027.

As billions of dollars continue to be siphoned off to the TSA, a group of representatives have joined forces to ensure the agency receives all of the funding earmarked to accelerate the deployment of advanced screening capabilities.

Establishment of a technology fund for TSA

Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., has been one of the most outspoken members of Congress when it comes to ending the security fee diversion. Last month, LaLota, along with a bipartisan cohort of his colleagues in the House of Representatives, introduced legislation to officially end the fee diversion and create an “aviation security checkpoint technology fund” to help the TSA acquire more advanced technologies.

In an interview, LaLota said, “We have put everyone on notice that this has to stop and that the government can no longer get free rides from its passengers to pay other bills.”

While the cost diversion expires in fiscal year 2027 unless Congress extends it further, LaLota warned that the TSA’s inability to quickly acquire and deploy new screening capabilities will have a long-term impact on airport security, “despite the fact that there is a large pot of money that should be dedicated to this.”

“This situation will only get worse as time goes by as technology continues to improve,” he added.

The fund created by LaLota’s bill would be used in part to accelerate the TSA’s deployment of new Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) machines, which scan travelers’ government-issued identification.

Beginning in 2022, TSA has been rolling out upgraded CAT machines — known as CAT-2 units — that use facial recognition to compare real-time photos of travelers to their IDs. The agency plans to deploy the facial biometrics-equipped units at more than 400 airports over the next few years.

LaLota said faster deployment of advanced screening technologies, including the enhanced CAT units, would dramatically improve the security screening process.

“The newer technology that is available today helps an air traveler get through security faster and helps the security officers do it more efficiently,” he said, adding that the inability to acquire that technology “makes the transition through those security checkpoints longer.”

TSA officials have warned that plans to roll out the more advanced CAT machines are being hampered by a leak of needed funds.

During a House hearing in May, TSA Administrator David Pekoske told lawmakers that the agency has deployed more than 2,000 CAT machines, including an undisclosed number of CAT-2 units. However, he added that the agency’s rollout of facial recognition capabilities at all U.S. airports would not be complete until 2049 due to financial constraints stemming from the fee diversion.

TSA embraces digital IDs

In addition to using facial biometrics, the agency is also using the CAT-2 units “to conduct an operational assessment of digital IDs, including mobile driver’s licenses.” That effort, which is still in its early stages, is already gaining attention from lawmakers who want to assess the effectiveness of the protections.

Last month, Reps. Clay Higgins, R-La., and Bill Foster, D-Ill., introduced legislation that would require the TSA to provide lawmakers with a report on the use of “emerging digital identity ecosystems” and their impact on homeland security. Nine states currently issue mobile driver’s licenses that are compatible with the TSA’s CAT-2 units.

In an interview, Higgins said his bill — which passed the House Homeland Security Committee on June 12 — would provide a comprehensive assessment of how “a digital identity ecosystem can be used by the TSA to expand the travel freedoms of Americans who choose to travel through TSA checkpoints.”

Higgins said the TSA’s modernization efforts and exploration of digital IDs could further improve airport security, but he cautioned the agency to proceed with caution, saying Americans’ right to travel “certainly should not be interrupted by a system that your government has devised.”

As the agency moves to implement more advanced tools despite limited budgets, Higgins said officials should prioritize on-site testing to determine if the systems have coding errors or built-in weaknesses.

“Using pilot TSA checkpoints at select airports is the smart way to move forward with new technologies,” Higgins said. “Test it and then evaluate how it works and then improve that interaction.”

TSA officials have previously said Nextgov/FCW that they are considering using artificial intelligence to improve the security check process.

Higgins, who co-sponsored LaLota’s bill to end the diversion of security costs after 9/11, also said the funds diverted from the agency should be used for modernization efforts and to give staff raises, since they were collected for that very purpose.

“We charge (travelers) $11.20 for security and then ask Congress to appropriate a couple billion more,” he said, adding that “we are taking that money from the American traveler; and I say take it because you have no choice.”

Facial biometrics and privacy concerns

TSA has deployed its controversial facial recognition technology at more than 80 airports since 2022, but the agency says it will take another 25 years to implement the technology at all airports unless the cost diversion ends.

TSA and Department of Homeland Security officials have previously said Nextgov/FCW that the facial biometric scanners do not store photos or data of travelers after a positive identity verification is performed. They also noted that travelers are free to skip screenings in favor of a visual match and that they have posted signs at airports stating that the process is optional.

However, the wider rollout of the advanced screening tools has been met with resistance from some lawmakers, who warn that the TSA’s use of facial recognition could undermine Americans’ privacy as it paves the way for broader adoption of surveillance tools.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. John Kennedy, R-La., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced a bill in November that would have ended the TSA’s facial recognition program within three months of its passage. Another proposal from Kennedy, Merkley and Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., would have paused the deployment of facial recognition technology at airports until Congress could review the effort, though that measure was not included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed in May.

Both LaLota and Higgins expressed cautious support for the TSA’s expansion of facial biometrics, though they added that ensuring traveler privacy must remain a top priority.

LaLota said protecting travelers’ personal information would likely be accomplished “by restricting the ability to store or access such a database.”

“It would be wise for Congress to create some good rules that strike the right balance between safety and security, but also privacy,” he added.

Higgins also said that the adoption of advanced capabilities by federal entities should not harm Americans’ freedoms. Higgins previously introduced bipartisan legislation in December 2023 that would require agencies to disclose when they use AI to communicate with the public.

“We must not allow a technology like facial recognition to infringe on the travel rights of the person whose face is being recognized,” he said, expressing concern “that my private information is not being unlawfully accessed or shared by a system that I do not control, that has access to my information.”

While Higgins called the TSA’s use of facial recognition a smart way to verify travelers’ identities, he added that “it shouldn’t stop you from traveling if there’s a glitch in the system.”