In a Taylor Swift concert back in May, organisers installed stealth cameras to capture pictures of her fans to cross-reference them with a database of the pop star’s known stalkers.
Impressive and frightening in equal measure, facial recognition technology is advancing at huge strides and both private and public institutions are embracing it eagerly.
The Chinese government has made headlines during the year with reports of their Orwellian mass-surveillance apparatus that includes a “social credit system” and a plan to adopt facial recognition technology on their 170+ million security cameras.
The entertainment industry is taking notice, and American pop icon Taylor Swift is among the first performers to add this type of technology to their toolbox.
During Swift’s Rose Bowl concert last May, alongside the traditional merchandise stands and dedicated selfie-staging points, her security entourage set up a kiosk that projected a montage of the musician’s rehearsal clips. Bewildered fans amused by the novelty were not aware that hidden behind the huge display was a camera silently taking their photograph.
These pics were sent to a central facility in Nashville where they were cross-referenced with a database of hundreds of the celebrity’s previously identified stalkers.
“Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working,” said to Rolling Stone Mike Downing, chief security officer of Oak View Group, an advisory board for venues that include LA’s Forum and the Madison Square Garden.
Do they store their images? What rights do they have to these images? Although the practice raises plenty of privacy concerns, legally, concerts are private events and organisers aren’t obligated to notify assistants that they may be surveilled.
As facial recognition technology becomes more effective and omnipresent, different organisations are starting to raise their apprehension over the extent to which these new tools can be used in detriment to individual rights.
In June, South Wales police raised some eyebrows when they started experimenting with facial recognition at various public events like sporting and music venues.
Their use of the technology at a peaceful anti-arms demonstration prompted the reaction of the United Nations, who labelled it as disproportionate and unnecessary in a report by Joseph Cannataci, the UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy.
He wrote: “In addition to the admitted lack of precision of the technology, I find it difficult to see how the deployment of a technology that would potentially allow the identification of each single participant in a peaceful demonstration could possibly pass the test of necessity and proportionality.”
He also said that civil society organisations expressed to him their concern that this technology was not only violating privacy but also might be thwarting the right to association.
With governments all over the world pressing further into the adoption of surveillance technology, and the private sector adopting it wholeheartedly, it seems the fight for a balance between privacy and security has just begun.