Biometric Scans for Homeless Shelter Clients Out, Digital IDs In?

Visual representations of blockchain are hard, OK? At least it’s not an image of a Bitcoin. Photo via Pixabay

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office confirms that the city will not move forward with biometric scanning of homeless clients seeking shelter and services, after the Human Services Department recommended against the idea in an internal memo. Durkan first asked HSD to look at tracking homeless “customers” using their unique biometric markers, such as fingerprints, last year, as a way of creating “efficiencies” and eliminating the need for clients to keep track of personal documents or scan cards.

“Mayor Durkan believes that streamlining ways for our neighbors experiencing homelessness to securely maintain their personal documents needed to access services is one of the ways we can better serve this vulnerable population, so she asked HSD to evaluate ways to accomplish these goals,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says. “With her extensive background working on privacy and security issues, Mayor Durkan understands the need for deep collaboration before crafting policies that will impact communities.

With that decision made, Durkan’s office also released the full memo, which her office previously refused to provide in response to a records request I filed last year. The memo pushes back (gently) against the idea that biometrics are a superior alternative to scan cards—noting, for example, that people don’t actually lose scan cards nearly as often as the city assumed they would. “While there was concern that lost cards would be an issue, most programs have reported that it is not a significant barrier to utilizing the system and loss does not occur as often as anticipated,” the memo says.

More details that were not previously available:

Switching from scan cards to biometric scanners, such as fingerprint readers, would be expensive. According to the memo, “the cost to switch to biometric finger imaging would include upfront costs of about $100,000 for the server, about $2,000- $5,000 per shelter for hardware and an annual maintenance fee,” compared to the $84,500 it cost to set up the scan card system, plus about $1,200 in one-time costs borne by programs that use the scan cards.

“Conversion to biometrics would require a significant up-front cost as well as ongoing maintenance fees, while the scan card technology has already been paid for and the on-going costs are minimal,” the memo says.

Biometric technology requires partnering with private companies that may not always cooperate with the city’s demands. San Francisco, the memo says, is about to discontinue fingerprint scanning and end its partnership with a company called Bitfocus because of the company’s “refusal to adapt their [Homeless Management Information System] platform to interface with the scan technology. SF’s workaround was to link the finger imaging data to a separate data base, which is extremely cumbersome and prone to errors leading to minimal use of the technology in most programs,” the memo says. HMIS is the system the county uses to keep track of who clients are and which services they are using; one of the justifications for biometrics is that it helps cities eliminate problems with duplicate data.

Instead of biometrics, the city may consider non-biometric digital IDs, which allow homeless service providers to access all of a person’s documents at once using a password provided by the person.

An earlier memo on biometrics produced by HSD staff recommended that the city consider low-tech solutions such as expanding the amount of space available for check-in at shelters, remove or reduce ID requirements, and asking shelter workers and clients for their suggestions to improve the check-in process before.

Instead, the final memo recommends that the city look into other high-tech tracking solutions such as digital IDs secured with blockchain technology. The city of Austin, the memo notes, has been experimenting with digital IDs for homeless clients.

The final memo to the mayor’s office also omits some of the concerns included in the earlier memo, such as the fact that “Some people regard biometrics as unnecessary surveillance tools and oversimplified, automated methods that objectify and separate groups of already marginalized people,” and that “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 early memo raised similar concerns about digital IDs, saying that Austin appears to be moving away from this technology. “Early reports have stated that use of this technology has resulted in significant barriers and specifically deters undocumented clients and clients with psychosis from using those services associated with the technology,” the document says.

The newly released memo identifies just two “challenges” with implementing digital IDs, as opposed to biometrics: “Authenticating identity for someone with no existing ID is time consuming to obtain initial records to load into the system,” and “The technological and human capacity to develop, implement, and maintain a digital solution will require resources.” The “challenges” listed for biometrics include the fact that “[a]dvocates may fight implementation” and the potential that fingerprint scans could require a review under the city’s surveillance ordinance.

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