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UK Police Scanned the Faces of 100,000 People at a Music Festival

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Police used facial recognition technology to scan the faces of thousands of attendees at the Download music festival in the UK without their knowledge. Because this is the world we live in.

Leicestershire Police used this weekend’s event to do a test run of their new facial recognition tech, trying to catch “organized criminals” who specifically target music festivals to “steal mobile phones,” according to a report in Police Oracle. The collected footage is compared against a database of custody images to identify the criminals—in this case, an alleged music fest phone robbing crime ring.


Facial recognition is increasingly being used by law enforcement. In the US, it’s used by the FBI and a spattering of local police departments, though generally in a more limited setting—specific to an ongoing investigation or in a controlled environment like a store. Scanning a throng of faces at an outdoor public event is taking it to a new level, which is why the local Police Oracle article got the attention of Noisey, TechDirt, and the BBC. This paints a pretty dystopian picture of what increased use of facial recognition tech in public places could lead to. And it’s some creepy shit.

The Download fest this weekend was one of the first uses of the tech in such a broad setting outdoors. Noisey has more background:

Globally, it’s not the first time festival attendees have been heavily surveilled at a music festival, usually without their prior knowledge. After the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013, the subsequent Boston Calling festival was subject to heavy but discreet forms of facial recognition surveillance (as covered here by Noisey US). But you can partly excuse Boston police forces for such invasive policing so soon after a bombing. It’s something you can’t really say for Leicestershire police this weekend at Donington Park.


It’s a classic slippery slope situation. Yes, you’re only going to get flagged if you’re on the custody database, but all that footage is still recorded and collected. What if it’s not destroyed? (Leicestershire Police say they have destroyed the Download festival footage, but we have to take them at their word.) A massive amount of data on innocent members of the public collected without our knowledge for the purpose of targeting select criminals isn’t exactly a new paradigm here. How’s that working out so far? Do we want our faces in the mix too?

Nope, but unfortunately privacy advocates are losing this fight before it even starts. Meanwhile, facial recognition software is getting more sophisticated and increasingly popular in commercial spaces too—your face might already be stored somewhere. It’s possible! Big Brother is watching, and he may know who you are.