LAX embraces facial recognition tech, but Sea-Tac airport hits the brakes

Airline crew members file past an airport biometric system.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As many U.S. airports, including LAX, rush to embrace the use of facial-recognition technology by airlines and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is applying the brakes.

On Tuesday, the Port of Seattle Commission (which manages Sea-Tac) unanimously approved a temporary ban on some uses of biometric technology, including the facial-recognition systems that CBP and airlines have been testing and introducing in recent years.

On a unanimous vote, the five commissioners voted to hold off on those controversial systems until the commission has time to create its own policies on how to use them. The commission’s goal is to have airport stake-holders produce policy proposals by March 31, with a policy adopted by the commission by June 30.


“We feel that our community expects more than to have this kind of technology rolled out without any public discussion or input,” Stephanie Bowman, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, said in a statement released by the port.

The vote delays a plan by Delta Airlines to introduce facial recognition cameras at Sea-Tac in coming weeks. It’s also apparently the first effort by an American airport agency to establish its own guidelines rather than leaving that to federal authorities.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners has not adopted any policy covering facial recognition or other biometric data collection, such as fingerprints, LAX officials say, and the data collection is accelerating
In the last three years, LAX has worked often with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and several airlines to introduce biometric technology, including American Airlines in Terminal 4, Delta in Terminal 3 and various carriers in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Besides boosting security, LAX officials say, the systems can make boarding more convenient, faster and more secure.

The airport was the first in the U.S. to launch facial-only biometric boarding, LAX officials said, and that as of July, more than 500,000 international passengers used a biometric process for “paperless” boarding.

The government’s use of biometric data has sparked complaints from many civil liberties advocates who say the technology threatens privacy rights. At least four municipalities (most recently Berkeley in October) have forbidden city agencies from using facial-recognition technology.

Three states, including California, have also banned use of facial-recognition software in police body cameras. (The California law takes effect Jan. 1 and expires after three years.)


But federal Homeland Security officials have set an ambitious agenda for setting up facial-recognition screening in airports nationwide in the next few years.

The Seattle commission arrived at its decision this week after public meetings in September and October and seeking comment from federal agencies, transportation companies, civil liberties advocates and others.

After that input, the commission adopted seven principles that it said should guide the creation of a governing policy. Any implementation of facial-recognition technology, the commission said, should be justified, voluntary, private, equitable, transparent, lawful and ethical.

In a letter cited at the meeting, U.S. Customs and Border Protection deputy executive assistant commissioner John P. Wagner wrote that the agency “strongly supports” the principles listed by the Port of Seattle. Wagner wrote that “we look forward to working with the Port of Seattle Commission on the use of facial comparison technology in Port of Seattle facilities.”

The Seattle vote does not affect a Customs plan to use facial-recognition cameras at a new international arrivals facility set to open in fall 2020, a Sea-Tac spokesman noted. That facility is controlled by the federal government, not the commission that runs the airport.

The spokesman also said the commission’s vote will not affect operations of CLEAR, the company that collects an annual fee from travelers who choose to submit biometric data to expedite passage through Transportation Security Administration lines.


At LAX’s Bradley International Terminal, a spokesman said, biometric exit systems are in place at three gates (used by several carriers) and Customs officials are using a biometric entry system to verify the identity of arriving international travelers.

LAX officials note that the airport agency “does not collect or store any biometric data as part of this process”— that’s Customs and Border Protection’s job — and that travelers are allowed to opt out of the biometric procedures.

An LAX spokesman said the airport agency “continues to work in close collaboration with CBP, the Transportation Security Administration and several airlines to pilot and promote the use of biometric solutions for passenger processing, as such solutions will allow passengers to get to their planes or their final destinations much faster, easier and in a more secure manner.”