Privacy SOS

Ticketmaster enters the face recognition biz, but customers should beware

Ticketmaster’s parent company, Live Nation, has invested in a facial recognition firm with ties to the Department of Defense. According to Live Nation’s first quarter financial report, the firm, Blink Identity, uses “cutting-edge facial recognition technology, enabling you to associate your digital ticket with your image, then just walk into the show.” Ticketmaster seems to hope that music lovers will appreciate the supposed convenience of using their faces to enter shows, instead of tickets.

Music lovers and other event goers should think twice before accepting this fate, and consider their options for resistance.

Military technology comes home

Blink Identity’s website says the company was founded by Mary Haskett and Alex Kilpatrick, both of whom worked closely with the US military on biometrics surveillance programs overseas. Haskett’s bio says she “[d]eployed to Iraq and Afghanistan on a number of occasions, [where] she was responsible for deploying the National Afghanistan biometric database system.” Kilpatrick is blunt about why he co-founded Blink Identity. His bio reads in part: “Commercializing biometric technology is Dr. Kilpatrick’s focus, having developed a number of biometric security and access control software products purchased by Government of Iraq and the Government of Afghanistan in use today. This includes the biometric security system for the Jordan Police Academy (used to train Iraqi Police), the largest police academy in the world. He also served as the technical lead on the Afghan and Iraqi national fingerprint databases, as well as the lead for deployment of thousands of biometric collection stations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The war comes home, but this time…at concerts?

The company’s website offers “solutions” in three areas: live events, health care, and commercial buildings.

Under “Live Events,” it says:

Powered  by  our  proprietary  military  grade  software,  the  Blink Identity  security  gateway  allows  venue  or  festival  management  to  identify  people  using  facial  biometrics  as  they  walk  at  full  speed  past  our  sensor,  handling  over  60  people  a  minute.  Snap,  ID,  admit. 

Once  inside, concert  goers  can  use  their  face  –  literally  –  to  buy  drinks,  swag,  enter  VIP  areas,  and  more.  It’s also possible to collect  usable  and  sharable  data  on  each  person  that  walks  through  our  biometric  entry  gateway.    

That’s right. The company’s website advertises not only that its military technology can and should be used on crowds at events, but also that “it’s possible to collect usable and sharable data on each person that walks” into events.

Facial recognition today: Lots of surveillance, almost no regulations

Most states currently have no laws restricting how governments or corporations can collect, use, or share our facial images. An existing statute in Illinois is under attack from companies like Facebook, which want broad legal authority to collect face images and use facial recognition technologies.

Despite the lack of appropriate regulation, the industry is expanding rapidly, with deployments in business and government. Like many types of 21st century surveillance, facial recognition is often a private-public surveillance partnership. Body camera manufacturer Axon plans to offer facial recognition capabilities for law enforcement customers. For years now, sheriffs departments have used proprietary facial recognition tools in the booking process, and state registries of motor vehicles have used the technology for fraud detection and law enforcement searches.

Last year, Jet Blue announced a pilot program with Customs Border Protection (CBP) to use facial recognition scans in place of boarding tickets for certain flights in select airports nationwide. A company called ScoutFoto uses facial recognition to identify runners in images of road races, to sell them photos of their race day runs.

Companies like Facebook, Live Nation, Jet Blue, and ScoutFoto are adopting facial recognition systems in the hopes that consumers will accept or even embrace the surveillance. For a number of reasons, we should not.

Why should consumers reject facial recognition technologies?

First, it normalizes dangerous, almost totally unregulated surveillance. One of the clearest pathways to a society devoid of public anonymity is the widespread normalization of facial recognition in commercial contexts. If you don’t want the cops or ICE scanning your face everywhere you go—and everywhere you have been in the past—think twice about opt-ing in to a facial recognition pilot program run by a company like Jet Blue or Live Nation. If lots of major companies are doing it, and consumers don’t seem to mind, lawmakers and judges may be more likely to agree when law enforcement argues that people don’t have an expectation of privacy in their face in public places.

Normalizing this technology is especially dangerous for people who are likely targets of disproportionate or otherwise inappropriate policing. In that context, the use of facial recognition has potentially dystopian consequences, including not just the eradication of anonymity in public space, but also near-Godlike efficiency for the state’s targeting of people of color, the poor, people with substance use issues, immigrants, Muslims, and dissidents. If you care about the right to anonymously criticize your government, or walk down the street without leaving a police database record of all of your movements, resist the normalization of face recognition systems in the commercial sector.

Second, while they offer companies and governments more power and control, these tools won’t necessarily make systems more convenient for users. Consider the Live Nation case. Say you’ve connected your face to your ticket to attend a concert, but a few hours before the show you realize you can’t go, and decide to give your ticket to a friend. That’s really easy to do when you have a paper ticket or email barcode you can pass on, but not so convenient if your ticket is your face.

Meanwhile, MIT researchers have shown that facial recognition algorithms are very good at recognizing white men, but terrible at recognizing women of color. Just imagine how it would feel to get pulled out of a crowd by security, or worse, because a system identified you wrong. 

What if we don’t resist the onslaught of facial recognition tools, in the commercial and government contexts? It’s not so hard to imagine a scenario, only a few years off, in which Ticketmaster allows law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels access to its systems in real time. Or a scenario in which the company sells your facial recognition data to a data broker, which makes it available to any marketer for a fee. Or one in which everywhere you go, advertisements speak to you directly about your likes and dislikes, your recent activities, or even your mood—while police databases quietly record your every step.

Let’s not do that. If you agree, take action when and where you can, including by declining to participate in corporate face recognition schemes like Ticketmaster’s. 

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.