Concerns over facial recognition cameras being used at home games

The West Ham United Supporters’ Trust will be keeping an eye on the police watching us

General view at the West Ham United v Manchester City EPL match, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 16th September, 2023.

Big Brother may not be watching you, but the pixel police will be as police technospies will be using live facial recognition technology at London Stadium matches this season for the first time. At present the Met has just four vans kitted out with the cameras, but the officer in charge, Chief Inspector Simon Brooker, hopes more will be ordered soon. When used, the technospy vans will be clearly visible and marked.

Its live facial recognition (LFR) cameras scan the faces of everyone in the crowd in range of the vehicle. It then compares the faces filmed with those on a database of 10,000 convicted felons with known violent criminal records or football banning orders. When it gets a match, it is checked by a human and, if confirmed, bobbies nearby get a vibrating alert on their phone with a photo of the person to intercept.

Technospy chief Brooker faced a grilling on the issue from football fan reps, including West Ham United Supporters’ Trust (WHUST) chair Sue Watson, at the Met Police Football Independent Advisory Group during the closed season. Brooker answered questions and sent additional answers afterwards. He claims that the technology is equally accurate for all ethnic groups and genders.

So far, the system has triggered one false alert for every 6,000 people scanned, but he said the past six uses (in the West End, not at football) had not produced a single error. And he says it is ‘extremely accurate’ at correctly picking up known offenders. They won’t get past. The LFR officer will be identifiable by wearing a special yellow jacket.

The innocent Hammer should have nothing to fear, Brooker claims. Any face not matching the database will be immediately deleted. Any false alert images will be stored for 30-days in case the mistakenly stopped individual makes a complaint. The IAG minutes say: ‘People cannot be forced to walk through the detection zone.’ But those who do cannot hide their faces. ‘If somebody tries to avoid the camera deliberately, they may be spoken to,’ the IAG minutes ominously report.

The locations of the van or vans will be decided before each match. So what happens if you get stopped and the police have the wrong fan? Brooker confirmed that there is no legal compulsion to prove your identity but this changes if the police specifically allege you have committed an offence.

The officer may ask you to remove a scarf or other facial mask but you do not have to. Brooker reckons there is usually enough face showing to confirm identification. The officer will ask questions to help them identify if they have the right person or not.

The only people targeted will be those with football banning orders, not just those banned by the club, and convictions for violent crimes, even if not football related. The police ‘watchlist’ is created for each event at which the technospies will be used and that watchlist is deleted afterwards.

It’s not going to be used at every game currently but will be used first at those fixtures considered ‘high risk. South Wales Police have been using the technospy live facial recognition technology for a while and took their kit to help Northamptonshire police use it at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July.

Most Hammers fans want nothing to do with violence and would welcome efforts to keep offenders away from football. But there remain civil liberties concerns. At the most basic level, WHUST does not support the use of football banning orders.

These require a lower level of evidence and are easier for the police to secure than convictions for mainstream offences. WHUST opposes special laws or tougher sentences for football fans – it is victimisation. WHUST believes the law of the land should apply equally to everyone, everywhere. The same standards of evidence should be required for convictions and the same sentences handed down whether the offence took place at football, cricket or Royal Ascot.

We are also concerned that people may be misidentified and face harassment if they cannot or choose not to identify themselves – unlike some countries, we have the right in the UK not to carry ID at all times. We also worry about the police commitment to erase images of the innocent. Barely a week goes past without a police force being subject to a breach of data protection legislation. Who will police the police?

Sue Watson, WHUST chair, says: ‘We have concerns that again football fans are being singled out unfairly. We raised several concerns and sought as many assurances as possible. We will be monitoring the usage of live facial recognition technology and keep asking the police questions. They may be watching us, but WHUST will be watching them.’

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