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Seattle to Replace Air and Sea Travel Documents with Facial Recognition by 2021

In 2019, the Port of Seattle began a process to prepare for federal and private sector implementation of facial recognition technology for passenger processing at its air and sea facilities.

Facial recognition uses biological measurements or physical characteristics to identify individuals. It can make travel safer and more efficient by speeding up check in lines. However, it also raises concerns about privacy, racial equity, cybersecurity, civil liberties and unforeseen uses that raise ethical questions.

The Port Commission wanted to be sure that they — and the general public — understood how this technology works, how it might be used, and key policy and regulatory issues that might need to be addressed.

The Port heard from a range of stakeholders at two study sessions in September and October 2019.  The first study session focused on how private companies use facial recognition technology to improve efficiency and service.  The Port also heard from civil society groups that raised concerns about threats to privacy and data protection, and inherent bias in the technology.

The second study session focused on the federal implementation facial recognition biometrics and how the Port has prepared for adoption of biometrics technology at its facilities. By the end of next year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will start using facial recognition in place of travel documents for arriving international passengers.

Feedback from those study sessions is helping to shape a Commission Motion to ensure proper safeguards when biometric technology is used on travelers and visitors at its facilities. The Port of Seattle Commission will consider the motion at its December 10, 2019 public meeting, which begins at noon in downtown Seattle. Commission meeting materials and a live stream will be available online.

Biometrics are not new at the Port of Seattle as it has long used various forms of biometrics at its aviation and maritime facilities — for access control and verification of employee, contractor, vendor, consultant identity. Its use of fingerprint scanners for employee access to secure areas of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) began shortly after 9/11, and travelers have the option of using CLEAR at SEA to process through TSA checkpoints. On the maritime side, Norwegian Cruise Line and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have partnered for use of facial recognition for disembarkation of guests at the Pier 66 cruise terminal.

The Port foresees a significant increase in facial recognition technology deployment at its facilities over the next few years. Already facial biometrics is being used by CBP for international arrivals at 11 U.S. airports (and 6 cruise terminals) and by airports/airlines for exit at 20 airports.

On December 10, the Port Commission will consider a set of seven “biometrics guiding principles”:

  • Voluntary — reasonable alternatives should be provided for those who not wish to participate through an opt-in or opt-out process.
  • Private — data should be stored for no longer than required by applicable law or regulations, and should be protected against unauthorized access or use.
  • Equitable — the technology should be reasonably accurate in identifying people of all backgrounds, and systems should be in place to treat mismatching issues.
  • Transparent — use of biometrics should be communicated to visitors and travelers.
  • Lawful — use of biometrics should comply with all laws, including privacy laws and laws prohibiting discrimination.
  • Ethical — Port staff and partners should act ethically when deploying technology or handling biometric data.
  • Justified — biometrics should be used only for a clear and intended purpose and not for surveillance on large groups without a lawful purpose.

These principles will apply until a more comprehensive policy is put in place, through a working group process. In the interim, any proposed use or expansion of biometric technology by Port or private sector partners must demonstrate alignment with these principles. Port leadership will implement an interim review and approval process, and any proposal will be communicated in advance directly to the Port Commission and through the Port’s external communications channels.

The Port sets policy for its employees and tenants, like airlines and cruise lines. For its federal partners over whom it does not have direct jurisdiction, the Port will communicate its guiding principles to CBP and other federal partners such as the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Coast Guard. In addition to notifying them of the desired standards, the Port will also work with these agencies and Congress to ensure that federal programs in place at Port facilities are aligned as closely as possible with Port policy regarding utilization of biometric technology.

Read more at The Port of Seattle

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