Feb 2, 2023 8:00 AM
Get Used to Face Recognition in Stadiums
Last week, the New York Attorney General’s office sent Madison Square Garden Entertainment a letter demanding answers. The state’s top law enforcement agency wants to know more about how the company operating Radio City Music Hall and the storied arena where the NBA’s Knicks play uses a face recognition system to deny entry to certain people, and in particular lawyers representing clients in dispute with Madison Square Garden. The letter says that because the ban is thought to cover staff at 90 law firms, it may exclude thousands of people and deter them from taking on cases "including sexual harassment or employment discrimination claims.”
Since the face recognition system became widely known in recent weeks, MSG’s management has stood squarely behind the idea of checking faces at the door with algorithms. In an unsigned statement, the company says its system is not an attack on lawyers, though some are “ambulance chasers and money grabbers.”
The venue’s use of face recognition underscores the recent spread of the technology at sporting events. The trend is driven by a desire to quickly authenticate ticket holders’ identity and get them into stadiums and concert venues. But civil rights groups warn that face recognition installed with seemingly benign intent can be adapted to other, more concerning uses.
MSG started using face recognition to look for people deemed security threats in 2018. That same year, the New York Mets and New York Yankees were among nine ballparks in a biometric identification trial between Major League Baseball and Clear, a company that offers fast-track identity verification at 50 airports in the Canada and the US.
The first Mets face recognition trial was limited to checking the identity of players and staff entering the stadium, but at the end of the 2021 season the Mets started using the technology with a select number of season ticket holders. When the 2023 season starts in March, in what the Mets call a first for an MLB team, all fans will be able to use face recognition to get into Citi Field.
The Mets want to continue finding other use cases for the technology, such as paying with your face for food and drinks, says VP of technology Oscar Fernandez, but the entry program is not designed to limit access to any group. “That’s not something this program is at all being applied to,” he says. “This is all about using your ticket to get into the stadium.”
Whereas Madison Square Garden is using face recognition to deny entry to people previously expelled from the venue—and certain lawyers—many stadium and entertainment center operators are testing the technology to let people inside. Reducing waits for ticket holders was given as the reason for a 2018 pilot by Ticketmaster and a similar test in 2022 by ASM Global, operator of more than 300 stadiums and entertainment venues around the world.
Companies developing face recognition for stadiums also market the systems as capable of reducing ticket scalping, and some football clubs in the US and Europe installed face recognition as a way to reduce the need to touch public surfaces to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Just because face recognition was installed for one use case doesn't mean it won't or can't be adapted to others. In airports, Delta Airlines started using face recognition for self-service bag drops in 2017, but after spreading to ticketing and security, face scans are beginning to power personalized flight itineraries on airport screens and some in-flight services. Clear also sells services to Major League Soccer outfits like BMO Stadium, home of Los Angeles FC.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta started a small pilot of face recognition for entry last summer with up to 100 season ticket holders for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League, but it is set to expand to 36,000 season ticket holders of Atlanta United FC when the MLS season begins at the end of February.
In Atlanta, a red carpet is rolled out to make face recognition entry seem exclusive and garner interest from fans, but “I don’t want to require a face to do anything” says Karl Pierburg, CTO for AMB Sports and Entertainment, which owns the two teams and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Executives at the company say they are looking for ways to use face recognition to increase operational efficiency around the stadium, but only if the person chooses to participate. That might include checking a person’s age for alcohol sales, or buying food and merchandise. AMB is also considering use of handprints or Bluetooth signals from a smartphone app for ticketing and payments.
Despite those broad hopes for the technology, Mercedes-Benz Stadium does not use face recognition to limit access to ban people from entry, Pierburg says, something a French football club experimented with in 2020.
“I don't think we would touch that,” he says. “Not that the safety of our fans isn't important, but when you start generally scanning, there's a line there that we've got to really make sure we're comfortable crossing before we go to it.” He sees a distinction between mass surveillance without consent and getting people to opt in to a way to cut the amount of time they spend in line.
Any system for entry can be used for exclusion, and the slippery slope of mission creep is an issue whether face recognition is deployed by a government or a private entity, says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the nonprofit Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. He’s been part of debates over face recognition in New York for years, from NYPD’s use during 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to its installation in apartment buildings and public housing.
Fox Cahn envisions a biometric economy springing up in stadiums, powering things like personalized advertising akin to the kind seen in Minority Report. But once an entity gains the ability to track nearly anyone, the technology can also be used to control and monitor movement, powers ripe for abuse.
“Facial recognition is giving the wealthy and powerful tools to potentially wield against all of us, and I'm very concerned about the full range of applications we’ll see,” he says. Even in a stadium using the technology purely for commerce, “every private sector database is one court order away from being turned into a policing tool.”
Face recognition use at private venues with tens of thousands of people in them raises the question of whether it's acceptable to turn the technology onto a crowd of people with no choice about whether to opt in. A search for stalkers in the crowd at a 2018 Taylor Swift concert raised similar questions.
In August 2020, a panel of three UK appeal judges ruled that the South Wales Police violated a man’s privacy and human rights by subjecting him to face recognition without consent. That system misidentified more than 90 percent of people in a deployment at Cardiff City stadium during a 2017 UEFA Champions League game.
Beyond privately owned face databases, roughly half the US population are in DMV photo or mugshot databases used by police in criminal investigations, and the countrywide HART biometric database developed by the US Department of Homeland Security is expected to include information on more than 270 million people. The Prüm database operated by the European Union is also expected to expand face recognition in public places throughout countries in the bloc. Meanwhile, commercial services like Clearview AI and PimEyes scraping facial data from billions of photos online.
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