Taylor Swift reportedly used facial recognition on fans at US concert

14 Dec 2018

Taylor Swift performing. Image: Ronald Woan/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Fans at a Taylor Swift concert in California were allegedly monitored by a facial recognition system to weed out stalkers.

Artist Taylor Swift is one of the world’s most recognisable celebrities, but with that recognition comes a major problem with stalkers.

According to a report in Rolling Stone magazine, a kiosk displaying footage of her rehearsals at the Rose Bowl venue in California also featured a facial recognition system.

A concert security expert noted that attendees’ faces were immediately scanned if they looked at the kiosk. Once a face was scanned, it was sent to a command centre in Nashville, Tennessee, which tried to match images to a database of the singer’s known stalkers.

According to security adviser Mike Downing, attendees at the May 2018 concert were scanned by the software. “Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working.”

The singer has had a series of harrowing stalker-related experiences. One stalker, Eric Swarbrick, had made a number of rape and murder threats in letters over a number of years. Another was arrested outside her Los Angeles home this April, wearing a mask, with a knife in his car.

Privacy worries

Many people have raised concerns about the privacy and surveillance implications of using such a system on unsuspecting punters but, as concerts are technically private events, Swift and her team had no obligation to tell fans about the scanning.

Jay Stanley of the ACLU told The Guardian“Stalkers are a generally scary phenomenon and everyone understands why someone like Taylor Swift would want to be protected against them. But this does have larger implications. It is not about this one deployment, it is about where this … technology is headed.”

In April of this year, police in China arrested a suspect who was hiding among tens of thousands of people at a concert at Nanchang Sports Centre. This was achieved through the use of China’s Sharp Eyes monitoring system.

Growing concerns about facial recognition

Facial recognition and the ethics around the technology’s deployment have been a major point of conversation this year. Only a few days ago, Microsoft president Brad Smith called for stronger government regulation of facial recognition, to avoid a “commercial race to the bottom”.

Smith’s comments were echoed by a research group comprising members of a variety of technology companies in a recently published report.

Ticketmaster recently invested in start-up Blink Identity, which claims its software can identify people walking past at full speed. The hope is that queues at concerts may be more efficient if such technology is used, but privacy concerns are likely to linger.

Taylor Swift performing. Image: Ronald Woan/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects