Staffers for the city’s Human Services Department who looked into “biometric” screening of homeless shelter clients last year strongly recommended that the city not move forward with the idea, emails obtained through a public disclosure request reveal. The emails also show that HSD staffers asked the mayor’s office to include their recommendations in the official response to questions I asked about biometrics in December, but they did not..
Last year, as I reported, Durkan directed HSD to look into the possibility of requiring homeless Seattleites to undergo biometric screening—for example, a fingerprint scan—to access shelter. The mayor’s office said mandatory screening was one possible solution to data duplication in the Homeless Management Information System, a database that keeps track of what services people experiencing homelessness are using, and that it would create “efficiencies” as well as better “customer service” for people staying in shelters. Opponents of such screening argue that collecting homeless people’s fingerprints or other biometric data raises significant privacy concerns, and that it will discourage vulnerable people from accessing services.
“The Human Services Department does not recommend converting to biometrics in shelters. The cultural, social, and legal considerations have not been explored among relevant departments … nor with any potential clients who would use any biometric systems to access shelters.”
Several of the emails the city provided in response to my records request originally included a memo (titled “Shelter Memo”) containing HSD’s rationale for recommending that the city abandon the idea of biometric screening. However, an HSD public disclosure officer removed this memo from the records, claiming it is exempt from disclosure because it “reflects the expression of opinions, recommendations, and possible policy formulations that make up the pre-decisional free flow of opinions and ideas to policymakers, the disclosure of which would harm the ongoing decision making process.” This “deliberative process” exemption is the same exemption HSD used to justify heavily redacting documents about a proposed safe parking lot for people living in their cars. Typically, this exemption is used to withhold early drafts of legislation.
However, the agency did, perhaps inadvertently, provide an email that included a draft memo outlining the reasons HSD opposes biometric screening of homeless clients. It’s unclear how much, if any, of this early memo ended up in HSD’s final shelter memo. The memo begins, “The Human Services Department does not recommend converting to biometrics in shelters. The cultural, social, and legal considerations have not been explored among relevant departments … nor with any potential clients who would use any biometric systems to access shelters.”
It continues: “Resources indicate that using biometrics at shelters (i.e. fingerprint scans or facial recognition software) will alienate people living outside and/or potentially seeking shelter. This may result in a lower percentage of people using shelter and increase the percentage of people who live outside as opposed to using available indoor shelter.”
“From our perspective at [HSD], we do not consider the loss of scan cards to be such a substantial issue that we believe they outweigh our concerns with the use of biometrics.”
“Shelter staff will be needed at entry to facilitate fingerprint scans and enroll anyone with cold, burned or otherwise damaged hands or any other struggles or refusal to fingerprint scanning—a potentially higher or increasing percentage of users than anticipated by policy makers,” the memo says.
“Some people regard biometrics as unnecessary surveillance tools and oversimplified, automated methods that objectify and separate groups of already marginalized people. Use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people.'” For example, “[t]he finger scanning method could trigger traumatic memories of people who have previously been fingerprinted.”
Emails from HSD staffers show a department frustrated by Durkan’s request to quickly study and make recommendations on an idea that many at HSD viewed as highly problematic from the start.
“[F]or everyone’s clarity purposes, we at HSD aren’t advocating for this,” strategic advisor Dusty Olson wrote in a December 11 email asking staffers to come up with information about biometrics at the mayor’s request. “It will be our recommendation in the memo that it not be pursued for multiple reasons. But we have to answer the question that was asked of us which is what would it take to do it.”
The preliminary memo identifies a number of other potential “unintended consequences” and potential “harms” of biometric scanning and tracking of people experiencing homelessness. Among them: The likelihood that a large number of people (particularly those with paranoia or psychosis) would refuse to submit to fingerprinting and scanning, and the fact that advocates would likely decry biometrics as an “oversimplified” method of tracking people that “objectif[ies] and separate[s] groups of already marginalized people.”
“Use of biometrics at shelters may further reinforce perceptions that shelters are ‘institutional spaces for government intrusion and surveillance of low-income and homeless people,'” the memo continues. “The finger scanning method could trigger traumatic memories of people who have previously been fingerprinted.”
Several cities that have implemented biometrics or other digital tracking systems to identify homeless service and shelter clients have since ditched these system, the memo notes, including San Francisco (which abandoned a program that required people seeking shelter to provide their fingerprints) and Austin, which is moving away from blockchain-based digital tracking because it “has resulted in significant barriers and specifically deters undocumented clients and clients with psychosis from using those services associated with the technology.”
My records request also produced numerous emails crafting a response to questions I asked the city about biometrics late last year. Many of these emails show HSD staffers attempting to insert language about their recommendations into the city’s official response. For example, HSD strategic advisor Mark Reardon wrote that the agency’s “conclusion is likely to be there is little benefit to biometric use and many negatives.” Similarly, Olson wrote that National Innovation Service, a consulting firm that the mayor’s office has called an advocate for biometrics, “acknowledges that they suggested an exploration of the technology, but haven’t vetted that idea with any community members, persons with lived experience or providers and therefore aren’t advocating for implementation.”
The emails also show that HSD staffers did not consider one argument for biometrics—that shelter clients can lose the scan cards handed out by some service providers—enough of a problem to outweigh privacy and other concerns.
“Clients do lose cards,” Reardon wrote, “but we have seen a very low rate of this during our pilot period” testing HMIS scan cards in some agencies. In a separate email, Olson added, “From our perspective at [HSD], we do not consider the loss of scan cards to be such a substantial issue that we believe they outweigh our concerns with the use of biometrics.”
Durkan’s office did not include any of these comments in their response to my questions. In fact, thet said the fact that “individuals can lose their cards” was a “clear challenge” for homeless “customers.”
“As customers expressed in interviews and in workshops, it is very difficult for them to hold on to identity cards or documents, which are easily damaged by weather, stolen, or misplaced when people do not have stable housing,” the mayor’s office wrote.
Ultimately, if the city can withhold documents they don’t want the public to see on the grounds that they include “the expression of opinions, recommendations, and possible policy formulations that make up the pre-decisional free flow of opinions and ideas to policymakers,” it means they can withhold pretty much anything, since most documents and emails produced by city staffers involve opinions and ideas about policy.
As I mentioned, the city has refused to hand over the final version of the shelter memo, which includes HSD’s recommendations on biometrics, on the grounds that it is part of a deliberative process that could lead to policy at some point in the future. However, the city will not have the ultimate say over whether the regional homelessness authority implements biometrics in shelters, so the argument that the memo has to be kept secret to avoid harming a future city policy decision is dubious.
Moreover, HSD routinely hands over similar memos and discussions related to other policy matters that are in their direct control, suggesting that they are treating the issue of biometrics as a special case. Earlier this month, for example, HSD provided me with emails, memos, floor plans, and even the results of an internal employee survey about the possibility of gender-neutral restrooms at the building where most of HSD’s homelessness division staff will be moving. The difference, perhaps, is that supporting trans and nonbinary staffers makes the city look inclusive—it’s a good story for the city. Internal dissent over a proposal that came out of the mayor’s office is not.
Ultimately, if the city can withhold documents they don’t want the public to see on the grounds that they include “the expression of opinions, recommendations, and possible policy formulations that make up the pre-decisional free flow of opinions and ideas to policymakers,” it means they can withhold pretty much anything, since most documents and emails produced by city staffers involve opinions and ideas about things the city does. I’ve asked the state attorney general’s office to review the city’s exemption claims, and hope that they will agree with me that the Public Disclosure Act does not create a nearly infinite exemption for every discussion of the public’s business.
To quote the Public Disclosure Act: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.”