Diverting TSA funds harms deployment of new tech, lawmakers warn

Travelers queue for security screening at San Diego International Airport.

Travelers queue for security screening at San Diego International Airport. Michael Ho Wai Lee/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A bill to keep all 9/11 security fee collections at TSA would help the agency more quickly deploy facial recognition capabilities, but its supporters say privacy still needs to be prioritized.

The diversion of funds from the Transportation Security Administration is harming its adoption of advanced security screening technologies, including facial biometrics, several House lawmakers told Nextgov/FCW

Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Congress created the TSA and authorized the agency to charge travelers a tax — commonly known as the 9/11 security fee — to help fund its operations. 

Although the current fee stands at $11.20 for a round-trip flight, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 diverted 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 diversion through fiscal year 2027. 

As billions of dollars continue to be directed away from TSA, a group of representatives have banded together to ensure that the agency receives all of its earmarked funding to help speed its deployment of advanced screening capabilities. 

Establishing a tech 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, along with a bipartisan cohort of his House peers, LaLota introduced legislation to officially end the fee diversion and establish an “aviation security checkpoint technology fund” to help TSA acquire more advanced technologies. 

In an interview, LaLota said “we've kind of put everybody on notice that this needs to end and the government can no longer get a free ride off their travelers to pay other bills.”

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

“This situation is only exacerbated the more time that goes by because the technology keeps on getting better,” he added. 

The fund created by LaLota’s bill would go, in part, toward expediting TSA’s deployment of new Credential Authentication Technology — or CAT — machines, which scan travelers’ government-issued identifications. 

Since 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 against their IDs. The agency plans to deploy the units using facial biometrics at more than 400 airports in the coming years.

LaLota said faster deployment of advanced screening technologies, including the upgraded CAT units, would drastically enhance the security screening process.

“The newer technology that's available today helps an air traveler go through a security line at a quicker pace and helps the security officials do so more efficiently,” he said, adding that the inability to purchase that technology “makes the transition through those security checkpoints longer.”

TSA officials have warned that plans to rollout the more advanced CAT machines have been hampered by the diversion of needed funds. 

During a House hearing in May, TSA Administrator David Pekoske told lawmakers that the agency has deployed over 2,000 CAT machines, including an unspecified number of the CAT-2 units. He added, however, that the agency’s adoption of facial recognition capabilities at all U.S. airports would not be completed until 2049 because of financial constraints resulting from the fee diversion.

TSA’s embrace of digital IDs

Beyond employing 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, still in its nascent stage, is already receiving attention from lawmakers who want to assess its security effectiveness.

Last month, Reps. Clay Higgins, R-La., and Bill Foster, D-Ill., introduced legislation that would require 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 drivers licenses that are compatible with 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 TSA to enhance the travel freedoms of Americans that choose to travel through TSA checkpoints.”

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

As the agency moves to onboard more advanced tools, even with its budgetary constraints, Higgins said officials need to prioritize on-site testing to determine if the systems have any coding flaws or built-in deficiencies. 

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

TSA officials previously told Nextgov/FCW that they are considering using artificial intelligence tools to bolster the security screening process. 

Higgins — who is a co-sponsor of LaLota’s bill to end the 9/11 security fee diversion — also said the funds redirected from the agency should go toward its modernization efforts and providing its workforce with a salary increase, since they were collected for that very purpose. 

“We're charging [travelers] $11.20 for security and then turning around and asking Congress to appropriate, you know, a few billion more,” he said, adding that “we're seizing that money from the American traveler; and I say seize because you don't have a choice.”

Facial biometrics and privacy concerns

TSA has deployed its controversial facial recognition technology at more than 80 airports since 2022, while also saying that it will take another 25 years to deploy the tools at all airports unless the fee diversion is ended. 

TSA and Department of Homeland Security officials previously told Nextgov/FCW that the facial biometric scanners do not store travelers’ photos or data after a positive identity verification has been made. They also noted that travelers are free to opt out of the screenings in favor of a visual match and that they have displayed signs at airports noting that the process is optional. 

The continued rollout of the advanced screening tools, however, has received pushback from some lawmakers, who have warned that TSA’s use of facial recognition could erode Americans’ privacy by setting the stage for the wider 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 2023 that would end 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 reviewed the effort, although that measure failed to be included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that passed in May.

Both LaLota and Higgins voiced cautious support for TSA’s expansion of facial biometrics moving forward, although they added that ensuring traveler privacy must remain a top priority.

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

“It’d be wise for Congress to write some good rules on point that strike the right balance between security and safety, but also privacy,” he added. 

Higgins also said 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 are using AI to interact with the public.

“We should not allow a technology like facial recognition to interfere with the travel rights of the individual whose face it’s recognizing,” he said, voicing concerns “that my private data is not unrighteously accessed or shared by a system that I don't control, that has access to my information.”

Although Higgins called 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.”