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A Kiosk At A Taylor Swift Concert Reportedly Used Facial Recognition Technology To Scan For Stalkers

Consumer advocates are warning that the gray area between security and privacy needs to be addressed as the technology spreads.

Posted on December 12, 2018, at 9:42 p.m. ET

Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

Taylor Swift's security team reportedly installed a kiosk at a concert that used facial recognition technology to scan unwitting fans for potential stalkers, something privacy advocates said is something the public should be concerned about.

Rolling Stone reported Wednesday that the technology was deployed for at least one of Swift's concerts at a kiosk playing rehearsal footage on the outside as the faces of fans who stopped to watch were surreptitiously scanned. The data was then reportedly sent to a control center in Nashville that cross-referenced the images with a database of Swift's known stalkers.

Mike Downing, chief security officer for Oak View Group, who observed the kiosk in action, told Rolling Stone that “everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working.”

Representatives for Swift and Oak View Group did not immediately respond to requests for comment. And the technology has been used at venues in places like Japan for years. However, consumer privacy advocates met the Swift news with warnings about how the technology could get out of control.

While the kiosks are an innovative way to minimize risks at concerts — especially in the aftermath of tragedies like the terrorist attack at Ariana Grande's Manchester concert in 2017, or the shooting death of singer Christina Grimmie at a concert in 2016 — they still exist in an ethical gray area.

For example, no clear answers have been given on who owns the Swift concert photos, or how long the data is kept in the system, which alarmed Human Rights Watch researcher Sarah St. Vincent. She told Slate that, in the interest of human rights, surveillance of concertgoers should be “really limited to what is strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.”

If, say, the data collector was able to learn that a Swift concertgoer then engaged in other behavior, like going to a bar, “that’s data that’s valuable for them to sell.”

She added that the security tactic could invasively harvest data that gets monetized, letting other companies know who attended Taylor Swift concerts and maybe what they ate and drank, or the company they kept.

The gray area between security and privacy also exists without much regulation — especially since concerts are technically private events, where companies aren't required to inform attendees before collecting biometric data.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Slate the industry is basically “a Wild West” at the moment.

“As long as it's private property, they can take your image and do whatever analytics they want with it, including facial recognition,” he said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.