Port of Seattle Bans Facial Recognition for Law Enforcement and Mass Surveillance

The Port of Seattle Commission has voted 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 July 13 vote builds on a moratorium on new biometrics uses that the commission put in place in 2019 until policies could be reviewed and developed.

The Port of Seattle, which also operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, has said that it’s the first port authority in the nation to formally limit the use of biometric technology.

“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,” Commissioner Sam Cho said. “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.”

The commission has 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 U.S. Congress. With this action, the Commission endorses “The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act,” introduced by U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal.

The Commission’s July 13 action drew upon 18 months of study sessions, stakeholder engagement, and public meetings. The new policies include:

Banning port and private-sector tenants from using public-facing biometrics to perform real-time or near real-time law enforcement and security functions. The prohibition extends to the Seattle Port Police’s 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.

Banning 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.

Regulates biometrics for “traveler functions” such as ticketing, bag check and access to passenger lounges. While federal law limits the ability of the port to enforce these policies on such uses by airlines and federal agencies, the port has said that it can still take “significant steps” to ensure alignment with the Commission’s biometrics principles.

Biometric technology is currently in use at Port of Seattle’s aviation and maritime facilities, like the use of U.S. Customs and Border Protection biometrics on Norwegian Cruise Line ships docked at Pier 66 to validate the identities of disembarking passengers.

However, some members of the public and various advocacy organizations have expressed concerns about the rapidly expanding use of biometrics, and have raised issues around privacy, equity, and civil liberties, as well as the potential for unregulated “mass surveillance,” thus leading to the Commission’s facial recognition ban in July.