Imagine showing up at a music festival or concert and being required to stand in front of a device that scans and analyzes your face.
Once your facial features are mapped and stored in a database, a computer algorithm could then decide that you are drunk and should be denied entry, or that you look “suspicious” and should be flagged for additional screening. If you make it through security, facial recognition technology could then be used to track the minute details of your movements once inside.
Face scanning software could be used to police behavior — constantly scanning the crowd for drug use or rule-breaking — or for strictly commercial purposes, like showing you targeted ads, monitoring which artists you came to see, or tracking how many times you go to the bar or the bathroom. Festival organizers could be forced to hand this trove of sensitive biometric data over to law enforcement or immigration authorities, and armed officers could pull people out of the crowd because they have an outstanding warrant or a deportation order. If you’re a person of color, or your gender presentation doesn’t conform to the computer’s stereotypes, you’d be more likely to be falsely flagged by the system.
This surveillance nightmare almost became a reality at US music events. Industry giants like Ticketmaster invested money in companies like Blink Identity, a startup run by ex–defense contractors who helped build the US military’s facial recognition system in Afghanistan. These vendors, and the venture capitalists who backed them, saw the live music industry as a huge potential market for biometric surveillance tech, marketed as a convenient ticketing option to concertgoers.
But now, it seems they’ll be sorely disappointed — and there's a lesson in the story of how we dashed their dystopian profit dreams. A future where we are constantly subjected to corporate and government surveillance is not inevitable, but it’s coming fast unless we act now.
Over the last month, artists and fans waged a grassroots war to stop Orwellian surveillance technology from invading live music events. Today we declare victory. Our campaign pushed more than 40 of the world’s largest music festivals — like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and SXSW — to go on the record and state clearly that they have no plans to use facial recognition technology at their events. Facing backlash, Ticketmaster all but threw Blink Identity under the bus, distancing itself from the surveillance startup it boasted about partnering with just a year ago. This victory is the first major blow to the spread of commercial facial recognition in the United States, and its significance cannot be overstated.
In a few short weeks, using basic grassroots activism tactics like online petitions, social media pressure, and an economic boycott targeting festival sponsors, artists and fans killed the idea of facial recognition at US music festivals. Now we need to do the same for sporting events, transportation, public housing, schools, law enforcement agencies, and all public places. And there’s no time to lose.
Facial recognition is spreading like an epidemic. It’s being deployed by police departments in cities like Detroit, disproportionately targeting low-income people of color. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are using it to systematically comb through millions of driver's license photos and target undocumented people for apprehension and deportation. Cameras equipped with facial recognition software are scanning thousands of people’s faces right now in shopping malls, casinos, big box stores, and hotels. Schools are using it to police our children’s attendance and behavior, with black and Latinx students most likely to end up on watch lists. Major airlines are rapidly adopting it as part of the boarding process. France is about to institute a national facial recognition database. Police and corporate developers in the UK are defending their use of the tech. In China, where authorities have already used facial recognition to arrest people out of crowds at music festivals, the government is making a face scan mandatory to access the Internet.
But in almost all of these cases, facial recognition is still in its early stages. It’s an experiment. And we’re the test subjects. If we accept ubiquitous biometric monitoring and normalize the idea of getting our faces scanned to get on a plane or pick up our kids from school, the experiment works and our fate is sealed. But if we organize — if we refuse to be lab rats in a digital panopticon — we can avert a future where all human movements and associations are tracked by artificial intelligence algorithms trained to look for and punish deviations from authoritarian norms.
Opposition to facial recognition is spreading almost as quickly as the tech itself. More than 30 organizations, ranging from the Council on American Islamic Relations to Greenpeace, have endorsed Fight for the Future’s BanFacialRecognition.com campaign, pushing lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level to halt face surveillance. Four cities have already banned government use of biometric spy tech. California banned its use in police body cameras. States like Michigan, Massachusetts and New York are considering legislation. Sweden recently banned facial recognition in schools after getting slapped with a fine under the GDPR data privacy regime. Leading 2020 candidates like Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke have echoed grassroots calls for a ban, and there’s rare bipartisan agreement in Congress, where lawmakers as diametrically opposed as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jim Jordan agree that facial recognition poses a unique threat to privacy and civil liberties.
When it comes to automated and insidious invasions of our personal lives and most basic rights, tech lobbyists and politicians sell a calculated brand of cynicism. They want us to believe that the widespread use of deeply creepy technology like facial recognition is a forgone conclusion, that we should get used to it, and that the only questions to address are how, where, and how quickly to roll it out. We can prove them wrong, by channeling our ambient anxiety and online outrage into meaningful action and political power.
Surveillance profiteers who hope to make a lot of money selling facial recognition software to governments and private interests are now on high alert. They’re watching closely for public reactions, running tests to see just how much intrusive monitoring we’re willing to put up with. They’re manipulatively calling for regulation –– a trap intended to assuage public fears while hastening adoption. They’re promising that facial recognition can be done in an “opt-in,” manner, ignoring the inherent dangers in corporate harvesting and storing of biometric data. But we can draw a line in the sand now, and shut down this unethical human experiment by pushing for legislation to ban facial recognition, and refusing to support corporations who use it.
We have a chance to stop the proliferation of surveillance technology that rivals nuclear weapons in the threat that it poses to the future of humanity. The clock is ticking.
Evan Greer is a trans musician, writer, and activist based in Boston. She’s the deputy director of Fight for the Future. Tom Morello is the guitarist of Prophets of Rage, Audioslave, and Rage Against the Machine.