For most of us, festivals are a way to escape our invisible prisons of technology. “I’m not taking my iPhone to Glasto,” you mutter to your pal, “I’m going off the grid.” Who can blame you? For just a few days, you want to enjoy yourself in a priceless disconnected moment of Gaymers fuelled euphoria. Up until very recently, you could be granted that small civil liberty, but this weekend at Download, new technology is being trialled by Leicestershire Police that could change the way you carry yourself at major events.
This weekend’s Download Festival will be subjected to strategic facial recognition technology by Leicestershire Police, making those 100,000 plus attendees the first music fans to ever be monitored to this extent at a UK music festival, according to UK police news and information website Police Oracle.
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.
The announcement article on Police Oracle reads, "the strategically placed cameras will scan faces at the Download Festival site in Donington before comparing it with a database of custody images from across Europe." So, basically your day drunk mug is just getting casually cross examined with every criminal on the continent as you party. It’s an unusual measure, which doesn’t feel justified by the main aim stated in the Police Oracle’s article (which also included an interview with Leicester’s DC Kevin Walker), which is to catch people who “steal mobile phones.”
According to The Register, who covered this story extensively yesterday: “Police Oracle's publication of the interview has caused significant upset for management at Leicestershire Police, who did not want any advance publicity of their ‘new’ surveillance project. The public would have been informed that it had been placed under surveillance after the event had ended, presumably as part of a ‘you didn't know, therefore it wasn't intrusive’, justification for the scheme.”
Main stage at Download, via Alistair McMillan (Flickr)
So the fact Download Festival goers are finding out about this before they arrive onsite is apparently already disappointing the police. Moreover, it would be impossible for the police to argue that this kind of technology was a preventative measure if they weren't planning to tell anyone about it beforehand. Instead, it seems to betray a determination to nail post-crime prosecution at festivals rather than pre-crime prevention.
I called Renate Samson from Big Brother Watch, a campaigning body which aims to expose the true scale of surveillance in the UK. Their briefings are regularly cited in parliament and government reports. “It’s one thing to pay good money to think you’re going to enjoy yourself at a festival,” she explains, “to then unknowingly find that your face is being scanned using biometric technology and compared with a database of people in custody from across Europe takes the edge off the fun. Mind you, Leicestershire has a reputation for surveillance. Between 2009 and 2011 they had some of the highest amounts of CCTV in the UK.”
Facial recognition in action at Boston Calling
Some will just see this as a means to an end, after all, you’re only going get rounded up by facial recognition if you are indeed on the custody database. So, only the bad guys should lose. However, what happens to all these thousands of hours of collected data afterwards should be of just as much concern to innocent festival goers. As Luke O’Neil wrote for Noisey after the aforementioned Boston Calling: “You don't have to be overly paranoid to suspect, as we've seen with the NSA revelations uncovered by Edward Snowden, that once data is collected, it isn't often deleted.” As stated in the same article, American journalist Kenneth Lipp was able to uncover 70 hours of surveillance footage from Boston Calling, that was still sitting online a year later.
Just 3 weeks ago, Outbreak Festival - which was to take place in the same location as Download, and had no facial recognition software planned for onsite - was mysteriously cancelled at the last minute despite the entire festival being set up, alluding to the involvement of safety concerns raised by Leicestershire police. Whether Download Festival had much option in becoming the testing ground for this new technology or not is unknown.
According to the Police Oracle article previously cited, other festival organisers have expressed widespread interest in technology, pending a successful trial. DC Kevin Walker told the Oracle, "It is one of the first times it has been trialled outside, normally it is done in a controlled environment. There has also been a lot of interest from other festivals and they are saying: ‘If it works, can we borrow it?’”
Quite how a festival like Download, which had only 91 arrests last year out of 120,000 attendees qualified as the trial test for the most invasive surveillance ever used at a UK music festival, is unclear. You'd think the biggest danger at a festival headlined by Kiss is just getting innapropriately licked by the swinging pendulum of Gene Simmons dry old tongue.
When I used to watch The Bill as a young lad with barely four TV channels, the whole “anything you say may be used against you as evidence line” would only apply to the ten seconds during which the villain was being slowly bundled to the floor and handcuffed by the pale, pruned hands of adorable idiot, Police Constable Reg Hollis.
But these days, that line applies to pretty much your entire traceable life. Whether it’s your CCTV monitored shopping trips, your iPhone calls, your emails, your Whatsapp, your snapchats, your general GPS locations. Even when you’re perusing 80s porn on private browsing, it should be executed with the knowledge that, at some point, a freelance coder in Lithuania has momentarily hacked your webcam and watched a few seconds of your halfhearted attempt to wank before work. You can be safe in this horrible modern knowledge that at various points throughout the day, your data has probably been either snooped, farmed, or gathered.
There may be dangers we are unaware of, but the bottom line remains that Leicestershire police are spending a lot of money to spy on largely innocent music fans, and they’d prefer if you didn’t know about it. The main reason most of us go to festivals is to completely unshackle ourselves in a field with a bunch of strangers to the sound of whatever we’re into that summer. The knowledge that you’re always being watched can only shit on that parade. Perhaps it's worth bringing a disguise.