Dec 12 2019

Port of Seattle to develop policies on use of biometrics to identify travelers

This week the Port of Seattle Commission — a special-purpose government body elected by the voters of King County, Washington, to administer both the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the maritime Port of Seattle — became the first airport operating or oversight body in the US to publicly discuss any policy for use of facial recognition and other biometrics to identify and track travelers.

Dozens of community members, technical experts, and members and representatives of local, national, and international civil liberties and human rights organizations including the Identity Project, the World Privacy Forum, the ACLU of Washington, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Puget Sound Sage, the Seattle Privacy Coalition, cyber-security experts, and many others submitted written statements to the Port Commission or testified in person at the Port Commission meeting on December 10th in opposition to biometric tracking of travelers at Sea-Tac Airport and the Seattle cruise ship terminal.

The only testimony to the Port Commission in support of biometrics to identify travelers came from a representative of Alaska Airlines, who asked the airport to make available “common-use” biometric passenger identification infrastructure and systems that could be used by all airline tenants at Sea-Tac.

Contrary to some reports, the Port of Seattle Commission adopted neither a moratorium on current or additional deployments of biometric traveler identification systems at Sea-Tac and the Seattle cruise ship port, nor any binding rules for the continued or expanded use of biometrics.

Port Commissioners made explicit during this week’s public meeting that they have not yet made any decision on which current and/or proposed new or expanded biometric systems or uses, if any, or what regulations or contractual terms of airport leases to airline tenants related to biometrics the Port Commission will eventually approve.

The motion adopted by the Port Commission is a directive to Port staff who have approved years of biometrics deployments at Sea-Tac (including Automated Passport Control kiosks for biometric entry tracking of arriving international passengers) without, to date, any formal standards or meaningful assessment of their purpose,  justification, or impact. The Port Commission has now ordered what amounts to a “do over” by Port staff:

Through this motion, a port working group is established to develop further recommendations governing port policy related to use of public-facing biometric technology.

This working group is to be composed of Port staff and operate in line with general principles, procedural guidelines, and a schedule included in the Port Commission motion.

Port staff are to “engage active participation from an advisory group [to be named later by Port staff] composed of community partners, travelers, maritime and aviation industry partners, and other impacted stakeholders”. The Port Commission will only then decide whether, and if so on what terms, the Port will allow continued and/or expanded use of biometric systems to identify travelers on Port premises. “Policy recommendations shall be delivered to the commission by the end of the first quarter of 2020…. The commission … expects a policy governing the use of public-facing biometric technology to be delivered to the commission by the end of the second quarter of 2020.”

As we explained in our written testimony to the Port Commission, and in person near the start of the public comment period at the Port Commission meeting on December 10th, there’s a malign convergence of interest between airlines’ desire to use facial recognition for business process automation and personalization, and government agencies’ desire to use the same systems for profiling, surveillance, and control of travelers.

The unfortunate result has been the development of integrated common-use systems of commercial and government biometric tracking.

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Dec 05 2019

DHS postpones plan for mug shots of innocent US citizen travelers

Press releases issued today by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Sen. Edward Markey suggest that CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have cancelled or postponed, at least for now, their plans to require mug shots of all US citizens leaving, or returning to, the US.

But rather than admit that it has partially backed down or postponed some of its most offensive and intrusive plans in the face of public and Congressional outrage, CBP has sent reporters a statement alleging that our report breaking the story and others that followed contained “incorrect claims” about CBP plans:

We stand by our story.

Until this Monday, when we called attention to the official DHS/CBP notice, the officially-approved and officially-stated intent of the DHS and CBP was to propose rules requiring U.S. citizens on international flights to be photographed.

If “there are no current plans” for mandating mug shots of US citizens, that’s becuuse DHS and CBP plans changed this week in response to public and Congressional outrage and the likelihood that pursuing these plans now would derail DHS and CBP hopes for approval of its current facial recognition programs by airport authorities such as the Seattle Port Commission, which will consider the issue next Tuesday (and which had been misleadingly told by the CBP official responsible for the planned rulemaking that facial recognition would not be mandatory for US citizens).

The official DHS/CBP notice of planned rulemaking meant what it said. It was issued through a formal process of agency review. It wasn’t  a typo, a mistake, or issued by a “rogue” employee.

We vigorously contest the CBP assertion that our story contained any “incorrect claim”.

Such DHS and CBP allegations, in response to truthful reporting, only further discredit the DHS and CBP, and lower whatever little credibility they may have had.

Was this a trial balloon to find out whether the DHS had finally reached the limits of our willingness to be treated like criminals whenever we fly? And if so, has the DHS partially backed off, at least for now? Maybe.

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Dec 03 2019

Seattle Port Commission to consider rules for airport facial recognition

We’ll be in Seattle on December 10, 2019, to give public comments (see our detailed written testimony submitted in advance) at a meeting of the Port of Seattle Commission concerning a proposed resolution on use of facial recognition by airlines at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).

This will be the first time that any operator of a US airport has publicly considered any policies to govern use of facial recognition by airlines or on airport property.

The public authorities that operate almost all major US airports have a key role to play in oversight of traveler surveillance systems deployed on their premises by their tenants.

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Dec 02 2019

DHS plans to require mug shots of U.S. citizen travelers

Buried in the latest Fall 2019 edition of an obscure Federal bureaucratic planning database called the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions is an official notice from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that:

To facilitate the implementation of a seamless biometric entry-exit system that uses facial recognition … DHS is proposing to amend the regulations to provide that all travelers, including U.S. citizens, may be required to be photographed upon entry and/or departure [to or from the U.S.].

According to the “Unified Agenda”, the DHS plans to publish a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (NPRM) in approximately July 2020 to make mug shots mandatory for U.S. citizens leaving  or returning to the U.S.

The laws cited in the “Unified Agenda” as providing the statutory basis for the proposed rule pertain to searches of aliens (non-U.S. citizens) and the obligation for U.S. citizens entering or leaving the U.S. to have U.S. passports (a requirement of questionable and largely untested Constitutionality). It’s not obvious how the DHS will twist this into purported authority to require mug shots of all U.S. citizens who travel internationally.

The DHS has already given notice of its intention to solicit bids for systems to capture photos of all air travelers, including U.S. citizens, and is working with airlines and airports on schemes to share the photos, so that airlines and airports will be able to use data collected under government coercion for their own commercial business-process-automation and price-personalization purposes.

In November 2019, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) component of DHS declared that its “test” of facial recognition on travelers crossing the US-Mexico border on foot had become a “permanent fixture” at certain pedestrian border crossings.

Meanwhile, the DHS continues to try to reassure travelers by claiming that U.S. citizens can and will be able to opt out of being photographed at airports or land border crossings — even though we continue to get reports, as we have told DHS officials directly, from travelers who were told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and/or by line-minders at airports and borders that photography is mandatory .

Can you opt out? All current statutory and regulatory provisions for biometric entry and/or exit are explicitly applicable only to non-U.S. citizens. They provide no legal basis for photography of U.S. citizens leaving or returning to the U.S. But current law also provides no guarantee of a right for U.S. citizens to opt out, and no specification of procedures for opting out or for redress for U.S. citizens who aren’t allowed to opt out. That will all become moot if the DHS succeeds in promulgating regulations requiring all travelers to submit to mug shots, the courts uphold them, and travelers acquiesce.

Just say no.