Anger over use of facial recognition at south Wales football derby | Technology

Football supporters and civil rights activists have expressed anger and concern over the use of facial recognition technology for a derby match in south Wales.

Two surveillance vans kitted out with the controversial technology were seen patrolling around Cardiff City’s stadium before the club’s game against Swansea City on Sunday.

Some fans donned masks, wore sunglasses and hoods or wrapped scarves around their faces to disguise their appearances.

A protest organised by the campaign group Big Brother Watch and Cardiff City supporters’ club took place outside the stadium before kick-off and a banner was unfurled inside during the Championship game reading: “No facial recognition.”

“It feels as if our rights are being taken away,” said Anthony Moore, a former soldier and a Cardiff fan for more than 40 years. He arrived for the game wearing a skeleton mask. “It feels as if every single person is under scrutiny now. I haven’t seen trouble here for 10 years.”

Another masked protester, who identified himself only as James, said: “It’s intimidating. The authorities that are there to protect us are attacking our rights.

“Football has made massive steps. The police do a wonderful job but this is one step beyond. We’re becoming the most watched city in Europe. I think we need more boots on the ground rather than cameras.”

What is facial recognition software?

Automated facial recognition (AFR) is technology that can identify people by analysing and comparing facial features to those held in a database.

Where is it used?

You might recognise it from auto-tagging of pictures on Facebook or on your phone, but it is increasingly being used out in the real world.

Shoppers at retail parks such as Westfield, for example, are routinely scanned and recorded by dozens of hidden cameras built into the centres’ digital advertising billboards. The cameras can determine not only your age and gender, but your mood, cueing up tailored advertisements within seconds, thanks to facial detection technology.

British police have also used the technology to scan crowds at events and demonstrations to identify ‘people of interest’.

What are the concerns about it?

In the UK a court action claims that south Wales police violated privacy and data protection rights by using facial recognition technology on individuals. The police force defended their actions saying that AFR was similar to the use of DNA to solve crimes and would have little impact on those who were not suspects. 

The UK’s biometrics commissioner has warned that police forces are pushing ahead with the use of AFR systems in the absence of clear laws on whether, when or how the technology should be employed.

The pressure group Liberty has denounced AFR as ‘arsenic in the water supply of democracy’, and the city of San Francisco has already barred the use of automatic facial recognition by law enforcement.

A crucial argument against police’s deployment of the technology is that it doesn’t yet work very well. It is especially inaccurate and prone to bias when used against people of colour: a test of Amazon’s facial recognition software found that it falsely identified 28 members of US Congress as known criminals, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus disproportionately represented.

Two vans with facial recognition technology were seen. One was parked for half an hour opposite the Admiral Napier pub, a 10-minute walk from the ground and a popular meeting place for Cardiff fans.

A van was also seen patrolling Sloper Road, one of the main routes to the stadium, before the match, which finished 0-0.

Members of Big Brother Watch handed out leaflets warning fans about the vans. The leaflet explained that faces were being scanned and their identity checked against a database. It claimed research had found that facial recognition often misidentified black people.

Vince Alm, of Cardiff supporters’ club, said: “I think the use of this technology is disproportionate to the risk this game poses. It infringes on people’s right to privacy. I think there’s an ulterior motive – South Wales police are trialling it and they think they can get away with using it at football matches.”

The protest was good-humoured, with masked fans singing “we’re Cardiff City, you can’t see our eyes” in front of the statue of the club’s FA Cup-winning captain, Fred Keenor.

Richard Duckfield, who was attending the game with his daughter, Georgia, said: “Football fans are persecuted. We’re treated as if we’re guilty unless proven innocent, rather than the other way round.”

Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, said football fans were being treated as guinea pigs. “The police think they can get away with treating fans like this and the rest of society won’t mind,” she said.

Ahead of the game, one of the most senior law and order figures in Wales, the police and crime commissioner for north Wales, Arfon Jones, criticised the use of the technology. “It’s a step too far and creates the potential for miscarriages of justice,” he said.

South Wales police’s assistant chief constable, Andy Valentine, said the force was deploying the technology to prevent offences by individuals wanted for questioning for football-related offences, or people who had been convicted of football-related criminality and are subject to banning orders.

He said the data of all those captured by the technology on Sunday who were not on the “watch list” would be instantaneously deleted.

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