Facility Security, Policies and Training, Security Hardware and Technology

Seattle Port Authority Permanently Bans Facial Recognition

The Port of Seattle Commission has voted to permanently ban the use of biometric technology—including facial recognition—for law enforcement, security, and mass surveillance purposes by the Port and any private-sector entities operating at its facilities, including the seaport and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The Security Industry Association (SIA), a vocal advocate for the responsible use of facial recognition technology, denounced the Port’s policy and called it an “out of step” decision.

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According to the Port of Seattle Commission, the vote builds on a moratorium on new biometrics uses that commissioners established in 2019 until policies could be reviewed and developed.

This action makes the Port of Seattle among the first port authorities in the nation to formally limit the use of biometric technology. The commission said the new policies are also among the strongest regulation of facial recognition biometrics by any government in the state of Washington, in that they extend to private-sector operators as well as government employees.

The commission also voted to regulate the use of biometrics for customer service functions and the Port’s response to federal international arrivals screening at Port facilities. To the extent allowable under state and federal law, the Port will require that any such use of the technology must be fully voluntary and meet strict standards for privacy, equity, and transparency.

“No one at a Port facility should fear that the Port or a private-sector tenant is secretly capturing their biometrics or tracking them with biometric technology,” said Commissioner Sam Cho in a press announcement. “Ports can and should take an active role in limiting and shaping the use of facial recognition technology. We hope that other port authorities and governments will consider adopting the Port of Seattle model.”

Commissioners also directed the Port to continue advocating for federal legislation that institutes a moratorium on federal government use of public-facing biometrics except for uses explicitly authorized by the U.S. Congress. As such, the commission said it endorses “The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act,” introduced by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and other lawmakers.

In a statement to Total Security Advisor, Jake Parker, senior director of government relations at SIA, said, “The Port’s policy is not one that others in America should emulate.”

Parker added, “While the recent decision extends an existing policy permitting several specific applications of facial recognition technology, such as customs, ticketing, and bag check, it unnecessarily limits other uses that benefit travelers.”

New Policies

The Port of Seattle Commission said its latest action drew upon 18 months of study sessions, stakeholder engagement, and public meetings. The commission offered the following summary of its new policies:

  1. Bans Port and private-sector tenants from using public-facing biometrics to perform real-time or near-real-time law enforcement and security functions. This prohibition extends to Port Police use of biometrics as part of a collaboration with a federal agency or on a mutual aid assignment in another local jurisdiction, as well as creating or contributing to a biometric database for law enforcement or security functions.
  2. Bans Port and private-sector tenants from using public-facing biometrics for mass surveillance, which the Port defines as any use of biometric technology to identify individuals without both their awareness and active participation. All Port policies related to the public-facing use of biometric technology will require use of the technology to be fully voluntary and “opt-in,” where legally possible.
  3. Regulates biometrics for “traveler functions” such as ticketing, bag check, and access to passenger lounges. The Port will strive to enforce requirements that any use of the technology for this purpose adheres to the Port’s seven guiding principles: (1) Justified, 2) Voluntary, 3) Private, 4) Equitable, 5) Transparent, 6) Lawful, and 7) Ethical. While federal law limits the ability of the Port to enforce these policies on such uses by airlines and federal agencies, the commission said the Port can still take significant steps to ensure alignment with the commission’s biometrics principles.

Public Perception

In its announcement, the Port of Seattle Commission noted there has been a significant increase across the country in public-facing biometric technology deployment in airport and seaport settings due to technological advances, federal requirements, and perceived customer benefits, such as a faster travel experience and increased interest in “touchless technologies” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the commission said many members of the public and various advocacy organizations have expressed concerns about the rapidly expanding use of biometrics. The commission added that stakeholders have raised issues around privacy, equity, and civil liberties, as well as the potential for unregulated “mass surveillance.”

Nonetheless, SIA’s Parker claimed that the Port’s policy is “certainly out of step with the public’s increased comfort with the technology across many applications, allowing contactless identity verification and enhancing security.”

He pointed to recent polling data showing that 75% of U.S. adults support use of facial recognition technology by airlines, and seven in 10 Americans support its use for airport security.

Park added, “The limitation on Port Police collaboration with federal agencies is especially troubling, as securing public spaces in and around airports is now more critical than ever given the history of terrorist attacks and the threat of violent attacks in these environments.”

The Port of Seattle Commission’s full presentation is available here.