Anger over use of facial recognition at south Wales football derby

Protest held before Cardiff v Swansea as fans say technology is taking away their rights

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 equipped 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 Cardiff fan of 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?

This is a catch-all term for any technology that involves cataloguing and recognising human faces, typically by recording the unique ratios between an individual’s facial features, such as eyes, nose and mouth. 

Why is it in the news?

After a trial of the technology, London's Metropolitan police have said they will start to use it in London within a month. On Friday, the force said it would be used to find suspects on “watchlists” for serious and violent crime, as well as to help find children and vulnerable people. Scotland Yard said the public would be aware of the surveillance, with the cameras being placed in open locations and officers handing out explanatory leaflets.

How is it used in policing?

The technology greatly improves the power of surveillance. At the simple end, a facial recognition system connected to a network of cameras can automatically track an individual as they move in and out of coverage, even if no other information is known about them. At the more complex end, a facial recognition system fuelled by a large database of labelled data can enable police to pinpoint a person of interest across a city of networked cameras.

Why is it controversial?

Facial recognition frequently sparks two distinct fears: that it will not work well enough, or that it will work too well.

The first concern highlights the fact that the technology, still in its infancy, is prone to false positives and false negatives, particularly when used with noisy imagery, such as that harvested from CCTV cameras installed years or decades ago. When that technology is used to arrest, convict or imprison people, on a possibly faulty basis, it can cause real harm. Worse, the errors are not evenly distributed; facial recognition systems have regularly been found to be inaccurate at identifying people with darker skin.

But the technology will improve, meaning the second concern is harder to shake. This is the fear that facial recognition inherently undermines freedom by enabling perfect surveillance of everyone, all the time. The fear is not hypothetical; already, Chinese cities have proudly used the technology to publicly shame citizens for jaywalking, or leaving the house in their pyjamas.

Alex Hern Technology editor

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

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 that 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, 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.

Before 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.


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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