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.” Continue reading “Human Services Department Opposes Biometric Screening for Homeless, But Refuses to Hand Over Memo Saying So”