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FAQs about Facial Recognition at SEA Airport

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Since early 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has utilized facial recognition technology to confirm the identity of a limited number of international travelers departing from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). In the coming months, CBP will begin to use this technology to confirm the identities of international passengers arriving into SEA as well, while facial recognition processing of departing international passengers will expand to almost all flights.

Facial recognition processing is voluntary for almost all SEA travelers! You have the option to opt out, and here’s more information that will help you make your decision: 

How is facial recognition used to process international travelers?

CBP uses facial recognition processing to verify whether an international traveler is truly the same person who is entering or departing the United States as their travel documents. A camera will take your photo and match it to a gallery of images from photographs that CBP already has of you from previous U.S. passport photos, U.S. visas or other travel documents. Instead of a CBP agent or airline personnel looking at your travel document, it will be a camera and a computer system that does the matching automatically.

Here's how it works:

  1. Airlines send a manifest of all the travelers on the international flight to CBP, who then prepares a temporary gallery of existing images of travelers 
  2. Photographs are taken, encrypted, and sent to a cloud-based matching system via a secure connection 
  3. CBP compares the new photo with the gallery, and then the system responds with the identity verification match results
  4. If there is a match, the traveler may board the flight. If there is no match, the traveler’s documents are screened manually
What if I don’t feel comfortable having my photo taken?

If you are a departing international passenger, you do not have to participate in facial recognition processing. Simply let the airline gate agent know, and you will be able to use your regular travel documents to board.

If you are an arriving international passenger from the United States, you can also opt-out; tell the CBP agent know and you will be processed in the traditional manner. 

However, if you are an arriving foreign national, you will be required to participate in facial recognition processing.

What are the risks of facial recognition processing?

The Port of Seattle Commission has identified three main concerns about facial recognition technology: privacy, equity, and customer experience. 

1.    Privacy

Any digital system is subject to potential hacking or data breach. The Port, airlines, and the CBP all comply with detailed privacy standards, but the reality is that no technology is 100 percent protected. Because your data is collected by CBP, there is also no guarantee that it won’t be shared with other federal agencies or law enforcement, within the guidelines of their legal authority to do so. However, CBP is bound by federal law to comply with certain privacy rules; more information can be found on those policies at the CBP Website.

CBP already collects comprehensive data on international travelers provided by airlines, including full name, gender, and country of passport issuance. CBP also has your photograph from your passport or visa application, and so the only additional datapoint from this screening is the picture taken at the airport used to match to that photo. CBP does not retain the images of U.S. citizens once their identities are verified; however, photos of non-U.S. citizens are retained. 

2.    Equity

Significant research has shown that facial recognition technology is better at identifying white males than women and people of color. Mismatches can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and fear for travelers, especially people of color or other groups who are already subject to the impacts of institutional racism and discrimination. The feeling of being profiled or discriminated against causes real harm for those individuals.

The Port of Seattle and CBP are committed to making these systems as accurate as possible in recognizing all travelers, regardless of their specific characteristics. Because travelers are being matched against only a photo gallery of the passengers on their flight, facial recognition used in boarding an international flight or going through customs processing is more accurate than in other applications.

The accuracy in each application varies depending on the specific hardware, software, and environmental conditions such as room lighting. For screening of departing international passengers, the Port and its airline partners are using the NEC system that received the highest rating by the National Institute of Standards and Technology for accuracy; CBP has reported accuracy rates of higher than 90 percent.

The Port also requires all airline employees operating facial recognition technology to undergo training on cultural sensitivity and how to deal with mismatching issues with appropriate discretion. Most people who experience mismatches will be processed immediately in place using traditional documents to avoid any embarrassment or attention. However, the Port cannot mandate these protocols for CBP agents.

3.    Customer Experience

Although the Port of Seattle cannot stop CBP from implementing facial recognition for international passengers, the Port has been actively involved in advocating for and providing the best possible customer experience for our travelers by:

  • Implementing a broad array of policies to ensure that passengers are fully informed about facial recognition processing and can opt out if they wish. 
  • Conducting a broad communications campaign, and direct outreach to diverse and immigrant communities.
  • Designing customer service standards to ensure that all airline employees operating facial recognition technology do so in the most appropriate manner: minimizing unintended image capture, handling mismatching issues appropriately, mandating an equivalent processing system for those who opt-out, and conducting regular performance evaluations to ensure that these systems are being operated as required.
  • Banning any use of facial recognition for “mass surveillance,” which the Port defines as anything other than an individual knowingly and actively participating in having their photo taken and matched.
What if I had a negative experience with facial recognition processing at the airport or have a suggestion for improvement? 

We want to hear your feedback through: 

Why is the Port working with CBP to implement facial recognition?

CBP is mandated by the U.S. Congress to use biometrics (the use of physical or behavioral characteristics to identify individuals through technology) for all arriving and departing international travelers; they have chosen facial recognition biometrics as their preferred method for achieving this goal. While the Port cannot prohibit this from occurring at SEA, we have made significant efforts to ensure traveler privacy, maximize equity, and provide the best customer experience.

International arrivals are fully controlled by the federal government, and CBP is implementing facial recognition to confirm that arriving international passengers match their travel documents (such as a passport or visa application). The Port has no control over these efforts, but is working to increase transparency and educate travelers about their rights with regard to this process.

For departing international passengers, CBP also has the federal authority to screen departing international passengers and began doing so at SEA in January 2020. However, the Port of Seattle Commission has chosen to take control of this process in order to enhance transparency, accountability, and traveler protections. While the Port and its tenant airlines must use CBP’s facial recognition database and follow CBP rules regarding privacy and other protocols, the Port of Seattle Commission has approved a comprehensive set of policies to supplement those protections, developed in partnership with a Biometrics External Advisory Group.

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