Seattle port authority votes to work with CBP on biometric exit at Seattle airport

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The Port of Seattle Commission has voted to work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on the implementation of biometric screening at the international departure gates of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Seattle Times reports, in order to ensure civil liberties.

The port authority approved a limited moratorium on new facial recognition deployments in December, but it applied to Port staff and airlines, rather than federal agencies, and in January CBP expanded its “demonstration” of technology for Biometric Exit checks from one to four airlines. The agency notified Emirates Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Hainan Airlines that passengers on a small number of their international departing flights would be screened with handheld fingerprint scanners, according to the Seattle Times.

Biometric Exit pilots reached Sea-Tac in 2018.

Preventing airlines from participating would have forced a different approach than the collaborative workflow that has been developed for the project so far but would not have prevented CBP from implementing a new system with its own staff. Facial recognition was expected to be operational at the airport by the end of 2019 according to November reports.

The commission says managing the cameras itself will enable it to ensure rights are respected, by making sure they capture only one person’s image at a time, and that opt-out advisories and processes are clear.

A privacy advocate complained that the decision “makes a mockery of the purported policy development process,” apparently confused about jurisdiction.

An ACLU representative accused the commissioners of falsely stating they have no choice but to collaborate on the project with CBP.

“The choice is not whether to execute biometric air exit,” commissioner Sam Cho said at a February meeting, according to the Times. “The choice is whether we as a port want to take this on, or whether we want to allocate this to CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and the airlines.”

Airline representatives have said biometric checks have led to delays at Sea-Tac, according to the report, and critics suggested the Port may not be able to comply with the principles for biometrics use a new working group plans to launch at the end of March.

CBP is also in the process of expanding its biometric checks to pedestrian border-crossings.

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