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Biometrics and Protecting Passenger Privacy

Jul 12, 2021

As technology becomes more prevalent in our society, it can sometimes seem to fade into the background as an accepted part of day-to-day life. While I am interested in technology and the benefits it can bring, I also think it is critical to consider the full implications of technological advances and find ways to protect people from potential harms. As such, I have been a strong advocate for regulating new technology at the Port. One instance where this has come up recently has been the Port’s engagement with biometrics technologies, tech that uses personal physical characteristics to identify people. 

I am especially sensitive to the use of biometrics at our facilities knowing that there could be racial bias built into some of these systems that disproportionately misidentify people of color. I have worked with my colleagues on the Commission and Port staff to ensure that strict parameters are being set up limiting the use of these technologies at the Port. For instance, I intend to vote in support of a ban on the use of biometrics technologies for mass surveillance of individuals moving through Port-controlled property at our Commission meeting tomorrow. 

In light of my demonstrated values and beliefs, I must note that last year the Commission took a difficult vote to approve and administer a federally mandated use of facial recognition for verifying passengers on internationally-departing flights. Although many stakeholders would have preferred that the Port had no part in administering this program, it was a federal mandate that would have been implemented with or without our input. Therefore, my colleagues made the tough decision to take ownership of the system,  giving us at least some degree of control and allowing us to set up protections around the program that the federal agencies would not guarantee.

These extra protections include an awareness campaign with large signs and public service announcements that clearly state that this verification approach is optional. Furthermore, by having the Port administer the program, we have the ability to audit the system regularly. I am pleased to share with you the first annual audit of the Air Exit program and its use of facial recognition.  There is no question that if the Port had not taken ownership of this program from the federal agencies, we would not have this level of accountability and transparency. 

All this is to say that I understand community concerns regarding biometrics technology, and I share the belief that we need to protect peoples’ privacy. I am happy to say that I think the Port has enacted controls and protections that achieve the goals of protecting personal information as well as maximizing personal choice in how much data people choose to share. While I sit on the Commission, rest assured that I will always vote with the equity implications of technological progress in the front of my mind.  

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