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Port Permanently Bans Facial Recognition, Other Biometrics for Law Enforcement and Mass Surveillance

The ban limits biometrics uses for traveler functions, endorses federal moratorium legislation
July 13, 2021

The Port of Seattle Commission voted today to permanently prohibit the use of biometric technology — including facial recognition — for law enforcement, security, and mass surveillance purposes by the Port and any private-sector entities operating at its facilities. The vote builds on a moratorium on new biometrics uses that Commissioners established in 2019 until policies could be reviewed and developed.

This action makes the Port of Seattle the first port authority in the nation to formally limit the use of biometric technology. The new policies are also the strongest regulation of facial recognition biometrics by any government in the state of Washington, in that they extend to private sector operators as well as government employees.

The Commission also voted to regulate the use of biometrics for customer service functions and the Port’s response to federal international arrivals screening at Port facilities. To the extent allowable under state and federal law, the Port will require that any such use of the technology must be fully voluntary and meet strict standards for privacy, equity and transparency.

“No one at a Port facility should fear that the Port or a private-sector tenant is secretly capturing their biometrics or tracking them with biometric technology,” said Commissioner Sam Cho. “Ports can and should take an active role in limiting and shaping the use of facial recognition technology.  We hope that other port authorities and governments will consider adopting the Port of Seattle model.”

Commissioners also directed the Port to continue advocating for federal legislation that institutes a moratorium on federal government use of public-facing biometrics except for uses explicitly authorized by the United States Congress. With this action, the Commission endorses “The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act”, introduced by U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal.

New policies

Today’s Commission action drew upon 18 months of study sessions, stakeholder engagement, and public meetings.  A summary of the new policies follows. Full details available at the Commission presentation.

  1. Bans Port and private-sector tenants from using public-facing biometrics to perform real-time or near real-time law enforcement and security functions. This prohibition extends to Port Police use of biometrics as part of a collaboration with a federal agency or on a mutual aid assignment in another local jurisdiction, as well as creating or contributing to a biometric database for law enforcement or security functions.
  2. Bans Port and private-sector tenants from using public-facing biometrics for mass surveillance, which the Port defines as any use of biometric technology to identify individuals without both their awareness and active participation. All Port policies related to the public-facing use of biometric technology will require use of the technology to be fully voluntary and “opt-in”, where legally possible.
  3. Regulates biometrics for “traveler functions” such as ticketing, bag check, and access to passenger lounges. The Port will strive to enforce requirements that any use of the technology for this purpose adheres to the Port’s seven guiding principles: (1) Justified, 2) Voluntary, 3) Private, 4) Equitable, 5) Transparent, 6) Lawful, and 7) Ethical.  While federal law limits the ability of the Port to enforce these policies on such uses by airlines and federal agencies, the Port can still take significant steps to ensure alignment with the Commission’s biometrics principles.

Previous actions on biometrics

The Commission’s December 2019 action put in place a moratorium on any additional uses of biometrics by Port or private-sector tenants until adoption of permanent policies.

In December 2019 the Commission adopted seven guiding principles for public-facing biometrics at Port facilities: 1) Justified, 2) Voluntary, 3) Private, 4) Equitable, 5) Transparent, 6) Lawful, and 7) Ethical. The Port also established an internal Port working group, an external advisory group of industry and civil liberties stakeholders, and a Commission Special Committee to translate the guiding principles into tangible and enforceable policies. Today’s action is the culmination of that work.

The first set use case policy recommendations – regarding “Biometric Air Exit” – was passed by the Port of Seattle Commission in March 2020. Biometric Air Exit is the use of facial recognition technology to verify the identity of departing international air passengers using US Customs & Border Protection’s (CBP) Traveler Verification System (TVS). Congress has mandated the use of a biometric entry-exit screening system for travelers to and from the United States, which has now been implemented at over three dozen airports throughout the country.

All passengers may choose to opt out of Biometric Air Exit and request a manual identity verification process.

Biometrics and travel

Due to technological advances, perceived customer benefits and federal requirements, there has been a significant increase across the country in public-facing biometric technology deployment in airport and seaport settings. Currently, public-facing biometrics are already being used at dozens of U.S. airports and cruise terminals by those who see the technology as a major benefit to travelers – both because of the potential for a faster and more efficient travel experience, as well as the belief that it offers a more accurate security process than human review of documents.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in “touchless technologies” as a way to reduce potential transmission of disease; facial recognition biometrics could potentially reduce direct interactions like handing documents back-and-forth or touching screens.

Biometric technology is already in use at Port of Seattle’s aviation and maritime facilities, such as CLEAR, a private company providing an option to those customers who want expedited screening at U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints to voluntarily supply their biometric data in order to verify their identities U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) use of biometrics at SEA to validate the identities of arriving international traveler identities

Use of CBP biometrics on Norwegian Cruise Line ships docked at Pier 66 to validate the identities of disembarking passengers.

However, many members of the public and various advocacy organizations have expressed concerns about the rapidly expanding use of biometrics. These stakeholders have raised issues around privacy, equity, and civil liberties, as well as the potential for unregulated “mass surveillance.”

For more information visit the Port’s “facial recognition” traveler information page.


Perry Cooper | Media Officer
(206) 787-4923 |

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