Seattle launches US-first biometrics policy

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Following months of engagement with the aviation industry, federal officials, and civil liberties groups, the Port of Seattle Commission has directed staff to implement new policies governing the implementation of Biometric Air Exit at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Biometric Air Exit is a federally regulated program that uses facial recognition to confirm the identities of departing international passengers at the boarding gate. All departing international passengers, whether US citizens or foreign nationals, have the right to opt out of biometric processing and request manual screening to confirm their identity. Because of its voluntary and one-to-one nature, biometric air exit complies with the port’s ban on mass surveillance using facial recognition technology.

To ensure that the port can enforce policies related to data privacy and traveler rights, the Commission also authorized a Request for Proposals (RFP) for up to 30 biometric air exit systems for installation at Sea-Tac, so that the port – not the federal government – can control the traveler engagement aspects of this process. The contract award for that RFP will require full compliance with the Port’s biometric air exit policies, such as ensuring that data is not stored or used for commercial purposes and that cameras are appropriately positioned to avoid photographing other passengers.

“Congress mandated that US Customs and Border Protection [CBP] implements a biometric air exit system, so we have limited choices on this matter, but by taking ownership of the system, we can ensure that it adheres to our principles and that people – especially people of color – are protected,” explained Port Commissioner Sam Cho. “The Commission believes that port implementation of these procedures is the responsible approach to ensure transparency, accountability and the best experience for our international passengers.”

The biometric exit program works by comparing images of departing international passengers taken at the boarding gate with a facial recognition “template” held by the CBP, based on previously collected images such as passport or visa application photos. The system attempts to match the image to a gallery of biometric templates for that particular flight and transmits a “match/no match” confirmation back.

The program is only used at departure gates and only when international departing flights are boarding. If Sea-Tac did not choose to operate biometric air exit itself, the CBP has the authority to implement the program using its own staff and equipment at any international air departure gate. CBP is already doing so at Sea-Tac on certain departing Lufthansa, Hainan, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic flights, and the Commission’s goal is to replace CBP and ensure that the program is run in full accordance with port policies and standards.

The port’s biometric air exit policies build on the CBP’s existing federal regulations to ensure that all travelers understand the technology, how it is being used and their right to opt-out if desired; any traveler can choose not to participate in this voluntary process. The port policies will also establish standards for how airline staff must treat customers participating in this process, standards for avoiding unintended image capture, and ways to treat mismatches with discretion and cultural sensitivity.

Over two dozen major US airports have implemented this program, but Sea-Tac is the first to pair it with policies and guidelines designed to enhance the traveler experience and passenger education.

Since the December 2020 adoption by the Port Commission of a motion instituting seven principles to ensure that implementation of public-facing facial recognition technology is clearly justified, equitable, and transparent, port staff have been working collaboratively to translate those principles into policies that can be clearly enforced and measured. Ultimately, there will be five sets of policies proposed by staff – one for each ‘use case’ of potential biometric technology uses at port facilities: biometric air exit; biometric air and cruise entry; non-federal biometric passenger processing; biometrics for customer functions; and biometrics for law enforcement and security functions.

In the coming months, staff will return to brief Port of Seattle Commissioners on the remaining policy recommendations, with Commission action expected by June 30 on an overarching policy implementing these recommendations.

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Tara has worked for UKi Media & Events since 2013, initially as a freelancer. She has been a journalist for over a decade and has worked for a range of publications, including Personnel Today, Management Today and The Grocer.

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