At a Taylor Swift concert earlier this year, fans were reportedly treated to something they might not expect: a kiosk displaying clips of the pop star that served as a covert surveillance system. It’s a tale of creeping 21st-century surveillance as unnerving as it is predictable. But the whole ordeal has left us wondering what the hell is going on.
As Rolling Stone first reported, the kiosk was allegedly taking photos of concertgoers and running them through a facial recognition database in an effort to identify any of Swift’s stalkers. But the dragnet effort reportedly involved snapping photos of anyone who stared into the kiosk’s watchful abyss.
“Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working,” Mike Downing, chief security officer at live entertainment company Oak View Group and its subsidiary Prevent Advisors, told Rolling Stone. Downing was at Swift’s concert, which took place at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles in May, to check out a demo of the system. According to Downing, the photos taken by the camera inside of the kiosk were sent to a “command post” in Nashville. There, the images were scanned against images of hundreds of Swift’s known stalkers, Rolling Stone reports.
The Rolling Stone report has taken off in the past day, with Quartz, Vanity Fair, the Hill, the Verge, Business Insider, and others picking up the story. But the only real information we have is from Downing. And so far no one has answered some key questions—including the Oak View Group and Prevent Advisors, which have not responded to multiple requests for comment.
For starters, who is running this face recognition system? Was Taylor Swift or her people informed this reported measure would be in place? Were concertgoers informed that their photos were being taken and sent to a facial recognition database in another state? Were the photos stored, and if so, where and for how long? There were reportedly more than 60,000 people at the Rose Bowl concert—how many of those people had their mug snapped by the alleged spybooth? Did the system identify any Swift stalkers—and, if they did, what happened to those people?
It also remains to be seen whether there was any indication on the kiosk that it was snapping fans’ faces. But as Quartz pointed out, “concert venues are typically private locations, meaning even after security checkpoints, its owners can subject concert-goers to any kind of surveillance they want, including facial recognition.”
While this story is unsettling and vague, it would be unsurprising to see a facial recognition system used in this type of application. We’re seeing the surveillance tech deployed in Saks Fifth Avenue, Madison Square Garden, schools, airports, supermarkets, fast food joints, and a number of other retailers.
With the surveillance dystopia becoming increasingly pervasive, we’ve begun to witness some of the backlash, particularly as it relates to tech giants working with law enforcement. Leading the charge are Amazon workers, who this year urged their boss, Jeff Bezos, to discontinue the company’s plans for its facial recognition software Rekognition, which is being piloted by a number of police departments in the U.S.
“The technology is in some environments where I’m sure millions of people, in a year, or even in a month, are subjected to it,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told New York Magazine in October. “Nobody has any idea that it’s happening, or what data is being collected, or how it’s being stored, or for how long, or who has access to it.”