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The Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, claims to have became the first port in the US to adopt principles to ensure that implementation of public-facing facial recognition technology is “clearly justified, equitable, and transparent”.

Commissioners created a working group, which by March 31, 2020 will develop these principles into policies that can be clearly enforced and measured.

According to Sea-Tac, commissioners also clarified that no biometric technology shall be implemented at its facilities until they formally consider working group recommendations and develop policy by June 30, 2020.

This month, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) notified the Port of Seattle in a letter that it agrees to the Port’s principles and will follow them in federal implementation of facial recognition technology at its facilities.

Sea-Tac pax

The Port developed the principles and working group strategy after inviting comment from airlines, cruise lines, federal agencies, and civil liberty and immigrant rights groups during public meetings in September and October.

“We know of more than 20 other airports that have implemented facial recognition technology, but no other Port has undergone a public process to ensure that implementation would protect passenger rights, and be limited, transparent, and ethical,” explained Port of Seattle commission president, Stephanie Bowman.

“We feel that our community expects more than to have this kind of technology rolled out without any public discussion or input. When this Commission adopts policies in 2020 we will have and have the opportunity to create the nation’s best practices for public-facing biometrics.” 

Sea-Tac plane2

According to the Port, the use of biomtrics to identify individuals raises concerns about privacy, racial equity, cybersecurity, civil liberties and unforeseen uses that raise ethical questions.

As a result, it is only considering facial recognition technology for use in confirming identity during passenger processing, replacing current manual passport control and boarding pass processes for international flights.

The Port does not condone biometrics for mass surveillance – use of facial recognition on large groups of people without a lawful purpose. 

The Port is acting ahead of a national rise in public-facing facial recognition technology deployment over the next few years by its private sector and federal partners.

Currently, CBP uses facial recognition technology for international arrivals processing at 11 US airports and 6 cruise terminals, while airports and airlines have implemented facial recognition for international departures at 20 airports.

Airports currently using facial recognition technology include Atlanta, Dulles, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston, JFK, Las Vegas, LAX, Miami, Orlando, San Diego,  San Jose, and Portland, Oregon.

Port of Seattle Principles for Public-Facing Biometric Technology

According to the principles adopted by the Port Commission, the implementation of public-facing facial recognition technology at Port of Seattle facilities must be:

1. Justified – Biometrics should be used only for a clear and intended purpose and not for surveillance on large groups without a lawful purpose.

2. Voluntary – Reasonable alternatives should be provided for United States citizens who do not wish to participate through an opt-in or opt-out process.

3. Private – Data should be stored for no longer than required by applicable law or regulations and should be protected against unauthorized access or use.

4. Equitable – The technology should be reasonably accurate in identifying people of all backgrounds, and systems should be in place to treat mismatching issues.

5. Transparent – Use of biometrics should be communicated to visitors and travellers.

6. Lawful – Use of biometrics should comply with all laws, including privacy laws and laws prohibiting discrimination. Reports on the performance and effectiveness of the technology should also be made public to ensure accountability.

7. Ethical – Port staff and partners should act ethically when deploying technology or handling biometric data.


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