Facial Recognition and Consent Culture
Last Updated: February 13, 2023
In 2018, Ticketmaster and Live Nation (a singular entity which, at the time of their merger in 2008, owned 80% of the market share) released an investor report stating that they had invested in Blink Identity, a facial recognition firm, with the intention of replacing physical and digital tickets with biometric information. The alarming nature of this report suggests that an attempt at mainstreaming facial recognition looms in the not-so-distant future, and we are compelled to contextualize the technology within our harm reduction and consent education mission.
Facial recognition represents a dystopic advancement of the police state. In a country where one in three adults has a federal criminal record by the age of 23 and a half-century War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted communities of color, there is no justice in mainstreaming facial recognition technology that will likely share and compare biometric databases with those of law enforcement.
“You want to know what this was really all about,” Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said, referring to Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Beyond the inherent harmfulness of automated policing, facial recognition is also entirely inconsistent with consent culture. People can only truly consent when they fully understand what is being asked of them, and burying biometric harvesting permissions inside the terms and conditions of purchasing an event ticket is deceptive and dangerous. We already know that commercial entities share (and sell) facial recognition data without individual consent, and currently there are no regulations that address this issue. Even if “consent” is granted to these companies and regulations are implemented, individuals will likely never know how their data is being used until there is a horrifying data breach or a highly visible scandal (such as Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica incident).
Facial recognition technology exists in a regulatory system that has not evolved with the digital world. The technology is invasive and databases are often insecure with no access auditing, so there is no way to monitor who is accessing the information and how the information is being used. Critics of facial recognition often conclude that the solution to facial recognition is increased regulation, but digital and internet rights advocacy nonprofit Fight For the Future (the organization founded on the infamous SOPA protests, and the backbone of the net neutrality protest movement during the Obama administration) argues that regulations cannot fix a fundamentally flawed and unjust technology.
In response to the rise of facial recognition technology in the US and concerning incidents in China that include automated policing that led to arrests, Fight For the Future launched their #BanFacialRecognition campaign. In the spirit of the nonprofit’s grassroots organizing strategy, live music fans were encouraged to reach out to their favorite festivals via email and social media and ask them directly: “Do you intend on allowing facial recognition at your event?” The response from most events has been a bewildered but resounding “No”. Interactions with large promoters such as Insomniac and AEG have also resulted in statements that they have no plans to use the technology. Despite these successes, some events and promoters have hesitated to respond. Evolving tactics, including soliciting festival sponsors to refuse to renew contracts unless the event agrees to ban facial recognition, have proven effective.
The introduction of facial recognition into live events is early enough in its infancy that we, the fans, have the power to demand non-cooperation from our favorite festivals, venues, and promoters. The simplest thing you can do to help is to contact the festivals that are listed in red on the scorecard, or not listed at all—both by emailing them, and on social media. If you get a response, you can alert Fight for the Future via Twitter or by emailing email@example.com. You can also sign #BanFacialRecognition’s petition.
Facial recognition is a technology that, once mainstreamed, can never be taken back. Creation of population-wide databases can never be undone, and even in a best-case political environment, there will always be toxic actors intent on weaponizing that information.
As of October 23, Fight for the Future declared victory (for now) on the live music element of the #BanFacialRecognition campaign. Live Nation released the following statement:
“Ticketmaster is always exploring new ways to enhance the fan experience, and while we do not currently have plans to deploy facial recognition technology at our ‘clients’ venues, rest assured, any future consideration would be strictly opt-in, always giving fans the right to choose.”
This is our community, and as the frontline generation, we have an obligation to keep it safe for each other and the next generation of music lovers.