LONDON — It’s May and the sun is finally out after a long British winter. For many that means one thing: festival season.
It’s a good occasion to disconnect from technology, go off the grid and enjoy a few days of carefree excitement. Or not.
Along with booze, music and mud — a lot of mud — British festivals may have another feature: mass surveillance.
Last year, Leicestershire police scanned the faces of 90,000 festival-goers at Download Festival, checking them against a list of wanted criminals across the country. It was the first time anywhere in the UK that facial recognition technology — NeoFace — was used at a public outdoor event.
Privacy campaigners — and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy — expressed their fury at authorities after they casually mentioned the use of the surveillance project on Police Oracle, a police news and information website. Police didn’t use any other method to warn festival-goers about the controversial initiative.
It’s not yet clear whether UK authorities will use facial technology at music festivals this year.
Leicestershire Police told Mashable: “There are no plans to use live time facial recognition technologies during music festivals or other events in the next few months.”
But they added that NeoFace will continue to be used by the force to identify suspects.
Glastonbury Festival told Mashable facial recognition won’t be used at its event while Download and Reading/Leeds did not respond to our request for comment.
What is facial recognition?
Facial recognition is similar to obtaining an individual’s fingerprints. Authorities told Mashable facial recognition technology is “speeding up investigations,” and results over the past few months “have been very promising.
“The force has demonstrated how the NeoFace system can also save officers hours, even days by cutting out the need to go through its database of detained people’s photographs one by one,” Leicestershire police said.
The software can compare dozens of measurements between key facial features on the subject’s face from CCTV or police body cameras images against the 120,000 photos on the Leicestershire force’s database of people it’s has arrested and held in custody over the past few years.
Police told Mashable there is “absolutely nothing to concern privacy campaigners.”
“Since we began using the system in May 2013, the force has been as open and as transparent as it can and recognises legitimate concerns.”
However, campaigners say its accuracy remains questionable, besides other issues around lack of consent and lack of understanding about how the data is processed, shared and stored.
Biometrics commissioner Alastair MacGregor, an independent advisor to the British government, has warned that image databases and face recognition could be used to track people’s movements by “combining widespread CCTV and access to a huge searchable database of facial images.”
“The concept of facial recognition is moving towards a Blade Runner-type future. The question is: did I really give informed and explicit consent to this? Where’s the transparency?” Raj Samani, CTO at Intel Security, told Mashable.
“In the case of festivals, it raises a lot of questions around what is done with our data once the event is over,” he says.
In order for facial recognition to be of use, the data has to be stored. But it’s unclear how the data is stored and protected or for how long it remains and when it’s deleted.
It’s nearly impossible to find out who the dataset is shared with or cross-referenced against, Christopher Weatherhead, technology officer at Privacy International, told Mashable.
“For example is the imagery being compared to law enforcement databases, medical databases, or social media profiles?” he said.
“Festival-goers should not be treated like suspects just because they wish to enjoy an event.”