The Port of Seattle has placed a moratorium on the implementation of biometric technology, delaying a plan by Delta and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to begin using facial recognition at international boarding gates at Seattle-Tacoma Airport before the end of this month. 

The moratorium, passed by the port's commission Tuesday, will stay in place pending the development of facial-recognition policies by a newly formed working group, which is tasked with completing those policies by March 31. Subsequently, the port commission plans to formally adopt facial-recognition policies by June 30. 

CBP has thus far introduced biometric facial-recognition technology for U.S. entry, exit or both at 25 U.S. airports. Facial-recognition kiosks are deployed at international gates pursuant to a mandate from Congress that CBP collect biometric records on all foreign nationals departing the U.S. At those gates, photos are taken of fliers and then matched to passport photos that the Department of Homeland Security keeps on file. CBP says processing takes less than two seconds.

Photos of international visitors will be held for years and can also be used to check FBI and terrorist watchlists.

U.S. citizens can opt out of the process and instead choose a manual passport check. For the majority who don’t opt out, the CBP says it holds the photos for no more than 12 hours and doesn’t share the data with other agencies.

Still, the CBP's deployment of facial-recognition technology at airports and other ports has drawn criticism from privacy advocates. For more than a year, lawmakers have called upon the agency to complete a formalized rulemaking process to address privacy and data-security concerns before further expansion of the biometric exit program.

A 2018 proposal by CBP, which surfaced only last week, would have made biometric screening mandatory for U.S. citizens. The proposal is now shelved -- a decision CBP says it made over the summer -- but its emergence further inflamed the debate.

The Port of Seattle's principles for facial recognition state the implementation must be justified and conducted with a clear and intended purpose; voluntary for U.S. citizens; private, with data stored no longer than required; equitable and accurate in identifying people of all backgrounds; transparently communicated; and lawfully and ethically administered.

In a statement, Delta said its "optional biometrics program appears either to meet or exceed the guiding principles in the motion that the Port of Seattle adopted governing the use of biometrics technology."

"Currently available to Delta customers at seven U.S. airports, the technology adheres to high standards for data security and customer privacy -- a responsibility Delta takes extremely seriously. We will continue working with the port as they develop their policy with the goal of bringing this technology to Sea-Tac and transforming the airport experience for Delta customers."


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