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Sea-Tac is first airport to resist federal push for facial recognition and other biometric technologies

Katherine Khashimova Long, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- At least for now, controversial facial-recognition technology won't be installed at boarding gates at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, making the airport the first in the country to resist the rollout of a federal biometric identification program.

After hours of impassioned public comment Tuesday, much of it from people calling facial recognition intrusive and dangerous, the Port of Seattle Commission unanimously approved a moratorium on some uses of the technology.

The five-member commission, which oversees Sea-Tac, suspended the introduction of some new biometric technologies -- including facial recognition -- until the commission adopts "tangible, enforceable" policies to govern their use.

The commission's vote halts Delta Air Lines' plans to roll out facial-recognition cameras at its Sea-Tac boarding gates by year-end.

The moratorium, though, applies only to areas the Port controls. Nor does the suspension apply to biometric technologies used solely by Port staff -- for example, fingerprints used to access secure areas.

That means a Custom and Border Protection plan to install facial-recognition cameras at a new facility to process arriving international travelers, opening July 2020, will proceed as planned: The part of that building where the cameras will be located is controlled by the federal government.

 

And biometric technologies already in use at the airport -- including CLEAR, a $179/year service for travelers who want to jump to the top of the TSA line -- will continue operating.

The vote means the Port has committed itself to grappling with an issue that's bedeviled federal and state legislators: How to balance civil-liberties concerns over biometrics with the efficiency and convenience some say they deliver.

At the meeting, Port commissioners said they were open to the possibility that tension may be insoluble.

If the Port were to adopt a more permanent prohibition on biometrics, it would be following in the footsteps of cities like San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, that have banned the use of facial recognition by city agencies.

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