Sea-Tac Airport to implement new policies for biometric air exit


The biometric exit programme works by comparing images of departing international passengers taken at the boarding gate with a facial recognition template held by CBP based on previously collected images such as passport or visa application photos.

The Port of Seattle Commission has announced that it is introducing new policies governing the implementation of “Biometric Air Exit” for passengers departing Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).

Biometric air exit is a federally regulated programme that uses facial recognition to confirm the identities of departing international passengers at the boarding gate. All departing international passengers, US citizen or foreign national, have the right to opt out of biometric processing and request manual screening to confirm their identity. Because of its voluntary and one-to-one nature, biometric air exit complies with the Port’s prohibition against mass surveillance using facial recognition technology.

To ensure that the Port can enforce policies related to data privacy and traveller rights, the Commission has also authorised a Request for Proposals (RFP) for up to 30 biometric air exit systems for installation at SEA, so that the Port – not the federal government – can control the traveller engagement aspects of this process. The contract award for the RFP will require full compliance with the Port’s biometric air exit policies, such as ensuring that data is not stored or used for commercial purposes and that cameras are appropriately positioned to avoid photographing other passengers.

“Congress mandated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) implement a biometric air exit system, we have limited choices on this matter but by taking ownership of the system, we can ensure that it adheres to our principles and that people – especially people of colour – are protected,” explained Port Commissioner Sam Cho. “The Commission believes that Port implementation of these procedures is the responsible approach to ensure transparency, accountability, and the best experience for our international passengers.”

The biometric exit programme works by comparing images of departing international passengers taken at the boarding gate with a facial recognition template held by CBP based on previously collected images such as passport or visa application photos. The system attempts to match the image to a gallery of biometric templates for that particular flight and transmits a “match/no match” confirmation back.

The programme is only used at departure gates and only when international departing flights are boarding. The Port of Seattle Commission also explains that if SEA did not choose to operate biometric air exit itself, CBP has authority to implement the programme using its own staff and equipment at any international air departure gate. CBP is already doing this at SEA on certain departing Lufthansa, Hainan, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic flights, and the Commission’s goal is to replace CBP and ensure that the programme is run in full accordance with Port policies and standards.

The Port’s biometric air exit policies build on CBP’s existing federal regulations to ensure that all travellers understand the technology, how it is being used and their rights to opt-out if desired; any traveller can choose not to participate in this voluntary process. The Port policies will also establish standards for how airline staff must treat customers participating in this process, standards for avoiding unintended image capture, and ways to treat mismatches with discretion and cultural sensitivity.

Other major US airports have implemented the programme, but Sea-Tac is the first to pair it with policies designed to enhance traveller experience and education.

Since the December adoption by the Port Commission of a motion instituting seven principles to ensure that implementation of public-facing facial recognition technology is clearly justified, equitable, and transparent, port staff have been working collaboratively to translate those principles into policies that can be clearly enforced and measured. Ultimately, there will be five sets of policies proposed by staff – one for each “use case” of potential biometric technology uses at Port facilities: biometric air exit; biometric air and cruise entry; non-federal biometric passenger processing; biometrics for customer functions; biometrics for law enforcement and security functions.

Staff will return to brief Commissioners in the coming months on the remaining policy recommendations, with Commission action expected by 30 June on an overarching policy implementing these recommendations.

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