Accusing the Port of Seattle of making promises it can’t keep, the American Civil Liberties Union called on the port to improve both its honesty and policies regarding the use of facial recognition technology.
Specifically, the ACLU described the Port Commission’s recent declaration that it effectively banned biometric surveillance including facial recognition technology as disingenuous. The commission controls and sets policy for the Port of Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“The port works in collaboration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection which uses the technology for entry and departure,” said Jennifer Lee, the technology and liberty project manager at the Washington chapter of the ACLU, in an interview with GeekWire. “It has zero influence over CPB.”
In other words, she said, it can’t really ban what it doesn’t really control. And this means the ban, announced July 13, did more for port public relations than it did for privacy, she said. “The port should not be providing cover for CPB actions,” she added. “It is trying to put a friendly face on it.”
At a recent hearing just prior to the ban, Port of Seattle Executive Director Steve Metruck acknowledged that some critics feel the port biometric surveillance plan stopped well short of where it should, but he countered that the public’s privacy concerns have been greatly advanced by the port’s actions.
“We had two overarching goals for these policies,” he said. “First, we wanted to be true to our values and to the biometric principles the commission passed in December of 2019. We must always be focused first and foremost on the rights and experiences of travelers, workers and visitors to our facilities.
“We believe some uses of biometric technology would violate those values,” he said. “Second, where we believe some uses are appropriate, we want to ensure that the technology is operated with strong safeguards.”
And that, Metruck and port commissioners said, is the essence of the new port policy: Ban what it can and place guardrails where allowed. The July 13 vote banned the use of biometric technology for surveillance and security purposes by government and law enforcement on all port properties, which include the downtown port and Sea-Tac International Airport.
The ban, which keeps the port aligned with federal mandates, does not include voluntary facial recognition systems such as CLEAR which allows Sea-Tac passengers expedited transit through airport security by the use of biometric scans. CLEAR is a private, paid service primarily used in airports and stadiums.
The Port of Seattle is the first port authority nationally to restrict the use of biometric technology for surveillance.
But, counted Lee, while the port cannot stop federal immigration authorities on its property from using the technology, it doesn’t have to work in collaboration with them. The port has spent millions of its own dollars to help advance federal biometric surveillance, she said.
“We have been urging the port to decline (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) collaboration,” she noted.
The port followed a national trend that finds both private and public sectors pushing back on the rapid spread of facial recognition technology. Amazon and Microsoft recently renewed their bans on sales of such technology to domestic law enforcement. Oakland and San Francisco have banned its use by government and law enforcement. New York is considering it.
Portland also has banned government-funded facial recognition. The City of Seattle has considered such a ban.