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.”