Surveillance in sports stadiums: Is it worth your privacy?

Privacy news
3 mins
An eye with a soccer ball.

This article references a session at this year’s RightsCon, a summit on human rights in the digital age. The event is being held in Costa Rica, with participation from ExpressVPN.

For the love of the game—would you allow your favorite sports organization to use facial recognition to let you into the stadium and track your activities on-site? If you’re a sports fan, it’s likely already happened to you.

Sports venues are increasingly using biometric identity systems and facial recognition surveillance to track audiences. One reason for this data collection is to prevent fraud with regards to ticket purchases. 

For instance, event ticket price inflation is a major problem, with scalpers buying up tickets and reselling them at a higher price. Using your face to verify your identity—part of a system known as fan ID—is one way event organizers try to prevent scalping, making it easier for spectators to pay the original ticket price to see their favorite teams. Ticket holders are generally required to enter their full contact details, along with submitting a photo of their face. When entering the stadium, a facial recognition machine matches the ticket holder’s face against the photo in the database.

However, at a session on surveillance and sports events in this year’s RightsCon, digital privacy activists who question the use of surveillance at sports events say these systems are being used for much more than fraud prevention. 

Rafael Zanatta, the director of Data Privacy Brasil, says that business managers behind the biometric system of one of Brazil’s most popular football clubs admitted that the use of biometrics contributes to a long-term strategy of monitoring individual audience members in order to market to them more effectively. Are they buying a lot of food and souvenirs? Are they drunk? Are they parents? These are the types of data that are being determined through surveillance and facial recognition in stadiums to put together fan profiles.

“It is a really complex system in which it is focused on profiling the social behavior of the fans and better understanding the economic opportunities, once they impose mandatory biometric identification and the whole biometric management during the sport event,” said Zanatta.

Safety is another often-cited reason for widespread surveillance at sports events. Organizers are concerned with terrorism, as well as fan violence, which is especially prevalent at soccer games with varying severity around the world.

However, critics say surveillance isn’t the answer. They point out that detailed data collection in public spaces can reveal people’s sensitive information like political opinions or religious beliefs, and people can be treated as a suspect in a crime simply for appearing in public places if a crime occurred in the vicinity. 

Facial recognition, in particular, is often used without any appropriate legal framework in place, said Laura Lazaro Cabrera of Privacy International during the session. Moreover, companies have used facial recognition technology in ways that are in contravention to data protection laws around the world. The prime example is Clearview AI, which built a database of billions of faces using images scraped from the internet. 

So what are the solutions at sports events, if not cameras? Francia Pietrasanta of R3D, a Mexican organization that focuses on human rights in the digital environment, says violence at sports events is a social and cultural issue that should be tackled accordingly. “The solution doesn’t have to be tech; it has to be social,” she says.

And when it comes to challenging the legality of fan ID and surveillance, data protection laws aren’t necessarily helpful, the activists said, because organizations can easily claim that data collection is for law enforcement needs. 

Zanatta says what can be a more powerful strategy is to create awareness among fans to see that surveillance systems are about business goals for private companies—and then for them to fight back and demand change, or wield their power as a consumer to choose to a different activity. 

“People don’t want to be treated as rats in a laboratory,” he says. “This is a powerful narrative for fans: Don’t be a rat. You are a citizen and a consumer. You don’t need to accept that as mandatory.”

Would you stop attending sports tournaments because of surveillance? Let us know in the comments!

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Vanessa is an editor of the blog.