At the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city’s Human Services Department is studying the possibility of mandatory biometric screening of homeless shelter and service clients, using fingerprints or other biometric markers to track the city’s homeless population as they move through the homelessness system. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says that the use of biometrics or a “digital ID” would create “efficiencies” that improve on the scan cards currently used by some Seattle shelters. “Different cities and states have explored solutions including digital IDs and biometrics, so the City has been gathering information on how to improve services,” she says.
The city also maintains that there is currently widespread duplication of data from shelters and service providers—redundant information that makes it hard for the city to track how many people are using services and which services are most effective.
Hightower says the new technology may provide “new ways to better serve persons experiencing homelessness… allow[ing] people to access services without having to maintain hardcopy documents” or hang on to scan cards.
“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing [biometrics]. Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”—Email from Deputy Mayor David Moseley to HSD director Jason Johnson
“One clear challenge [with scan cards] is that individuals can lose their cards,” Hightower says. But critics, and some HSD staffers, are skeptical that the benefits of better data outweigh privacy and other concerns raised by biometric tracking. And homeless advocates point out that people often lose their IDs and other documents when the city sweeps their encampment and removes or throws away their stuff, a policy that has accelerated under Durkan.
In an email on November 4, which I obtained through a records request, deputy mayor David Moseley directed HSD director Jason Johnson to look into “how would we convert to biometrics for folks entering … shelter?”
“Apparently this is something San Francisco does and that Mark Dones”—the consultant whose firm received $637,000 over the past year for their work on the new regional homelessness authority—”advocates for,” Moseley wrote.
In a 2018 report to the city and county, Dones recommended “explor[ing] opportunities to create radically accessible, customer-driven services through digital identification” for people experiencing homelessness in King County. A digital ID is an encrypted file containing medical information and other personal data that is typically accessed through the use of fingerprints or other biometric markers rather than a scan card or physical documents. Advocates for digital IDs and fingerprinting say that it helps homeless shelters provide service to clients faster; detractors call it “dangerous” technology that is “ripe for abuse.”
“The plan should include pros/cons … and the cost associated with implementing,” Moseley continued. “Would we be able to make some of these adjustments in the 2020 contracts?”
The task of looking into biometrics, along with several other research projects, fell to HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, who expressed her concerns in an email to Diana Salazar, the director of HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division. “The one we would need to do the most work on would be the biometrics. That will be incredibly unpopular with Council and some advocates, who were concerned about the invasive elements of using scan cards,” Olson wrote. Some large shelter providers distribute scan cards to clients; these cards are linked to the Homeless Management Information System, which contains information about everyone who enters the homelessness system.
“I am not sure they are trying to solve a specific problem. [Durkan] probably just heard about a cool thing. …. I think we need to just research biometrics and make a recommendation.” — HSD strategic advisor Dusty Olson, internal email
Privacy and homeless advocates contacted by The C Is for Crank were not aware of the city’s behind-the-scenes work on biometrics, but raised a number of objections to the concept. Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project for the Washington state ACLU, says the use of biometrics seems like a high-tech solution in search of a problem, and points out that local data collection can have unintended consequences; Seattle shares data from its automated license plate readers with the state Department of Transportation, for example, but has no control over how WSDOT uses that data or whether they share it with federal agencies such as ICE.
“Why is it so difficult for them to identify people through a means other than putting everyone’s biometrics in a database?” Narayan asks. “What problem is your shiny tech doo-dad the solution to? And if you’re going to force people to give up their biometrics, it had better be for a really really good reason. But we haven’t had the chance to have that conversation because they’re jumping ahead to the shiny new thing.”
Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, says that biometric data collection will likely prevent some people—particularly undocumented immigrants, people fleeing domestic violence, people who’ve been incarcerated, and people with mental illnesses that cause them to be paranoid—from seeking shelter and other services. She argues that the problem isn’t that the city doesn’t have enough data on homeless people—it’s that Seattle isn’t building enough housing to get people inside.
“I just continue seeing, with the Durkan Administration, this idea that technology will solve the entire housing crisis,” McCoy says. “We know that we need hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing to start digging ourselves out of this crisis. But instead of focusing on that issue, which will require some kind of new revenue, ideally progressive [revenue], we’re instead focusing on how we’re going to efficient-ize our way out the homeless crisis.”
Other cities that have experimented with biometrics (including facial scanning, a technology Hightower says Durkan does not support) have seen limited results beyond more efficient data collection. Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently reported that the One System digital ID in San Francisco—the one Dones apparently touted—has not increased access to permanent housing.
Conversations between HSD staffers in response to Moseley’s directive suggest some internal resistance to the idea of biometric tracking. One employee responded to Olson’s request with this message: “I do not understand what this means. Any current Marc Dones materials that you recommend I seek out or reference? I believe his tech was banned in shelters in SF in May this year…” (San Francisco city banned the use of facial recognition by city agencies in May.)
“We believe people shouldn’t be forced to give up this information, which is unique to their body, to get basic services.”—Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington
Another staffer asked Olson, “What is the problem the [mayor’s office] is trying to solve around biometrics, since we’ve invested already in scan cards?”
Olson responded: “I am not sure they are trying to solve a specific problem. She probably just heard about a cool thing. I doubt they are even aware that we use scan cards. I think we need to just research biometrics and make a recommendation.”
Hightower says the memo from HSD will be delivered “in December or perhaps January but will ultimately be a function of the new authority as part of one of the main initiatives to improve client experience.”
UPDATE: After this article posted, Hightower sent an email that included the following statement: “Mayor Durkan is focused on finding innovative and customer-driven ways to improve services for people experiencing homelessness. As you know, with her extensive experience with data privacy she understands the unique balance required to provide security while also delivering critically needed services. (Mayor Durkan helped draft the first proposed state legislation to protect private data and to provide identity theft protections. The identity theft bill became a model.) With that said, utilizing biometric technology was a recommendation of the National Innovation Service (NIS), that came after close consultation with customers learning from them the specific barriers they face. Customers specifically mentioned the difficulty retaining documents due to weather, theft, and the general loss of documents and that the repetitive and dehumanizing data collection process was one cause for deteriorating relationships between service providers. Service providers also share this concern while citing that the practice is time consuming and would be better spent connecting clients to service opportunities. At all points in the conversation the Mayor stressed, and NIS agreed, that robust privacy protections would need to be in place, that exceptions or additional protections would need to be impactful for vulnerable person like victims of stalking or domestic violence and the intense stakeholder engagement would include privacy interests, people experiencing homelessness, frontline providers, healthcare providers and Council.”
The city would likely have to run any biometric tracking proposal through a racial equity tool kit, to identify what kind of disparate impacts such a system would have on people of color, who make up a disproportionate percentage of Seattle’s homeless population.
Narayan and McCoy say it should also be taken up by the city’s surveillance work group, which evaluates policies against the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance. “This is really about power, [including] how much power people have over their own biometrics,” Narayan says. “We believe people shouldn’t be forced to give up this information, which is unique to their body, to get basic services, and that seems to be what’s being proposed.”
Hightower says the mayor’s office is “just beginning to explore the possibilities of digital ID, and evaluating its ability to protect privacy is a key question to be answered. This has been explored by some of the cities and states that have implemented both digital IDs and biometrics like fingerprinting.”