Privacy groups balk at MLB’s facial recognition ticket entry at Phillies games

Concerns over facial recognition tech continue, three years after major software companies called for a hold on sales of such technology to police amid concerns over accuracy, bias against certain groups and the treatment of stored personal data.

In recent days, New York state banned the use of facial recognition in schools after a report concluded risks to student privacy and civil rights outweigh potential security benefits.

Still, some applications of the tech seem to be on the rise, including to streamline paid admission at entry gates to public events like baseball.

On Thursday night, a small group of privacy advocates protested facial recognition technology being used at the last season game of the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. They represented 11 privacy groups calling on Major League Baseball to ban all forms of facial recognition and biometric tech used at games. (The Phillies concluded their season with another trip to the playoffs starting Oct. 3.)

“Introducing facial recognition at ballparks is a surefire way to ruin America’s national pastime,” said Caitlin Seely George, managing director at Fight for the Future, one of the 11 groups. “The MLB needs to cancel Go-Ahead Entry, reject vendors that use facial recognition for payments, and all other sports leagues and stadiums need to reject this surveillance tech.”

MLB and Phillies management have defended the Go-Ahead Entry system going back to when it was first introduced in late August.  It was greeted to the delight of some Philly fans at the time, who were able to enter the park quickly without long lines, according to AP and other reports.  

“We’re always looking at ways to improve the fan experience,” MLB SVP Product Experience and Ticketing Karri Zaremba told Sports Business Journal in August. “It really starts with the first impression as they come in. A lot of clubs have rolled Evolv and CEIA units, which is a free-flow security and screening software and hardware…This is now a complement to the free-flow security screening with free-flow ticket-taking, so that it is really a free-flow, end-to-end, ingress experience. That was really the impetus for this.”

To use the system, fans must purchase a digital ticket and add it to their wallet inside the MLB Ballpark app and record a facial scan of themselves. MLB uses the scan and converts it to a numerical token, which is used to authenticate their likeness at entry. A camera on a kiosk takes an image of their face.

According to the SBJ report, the numerical token is kept and safeguarded by the league for future ticket authentication, but the images are not stored. AP quoted Zaremba saying the tokens are not connected to any type of security system, which has been a concern in prior critiques of facial recognition systems that could be accessed by police to search for known suspects.

Upon entering the park, Phillies fans don’t have to stop to open bags or be checked individually using Evolv Technology, which uses AI sensors.  The facial recognition is provided as a separate component but the vendor behind it has not been named.  Evolv is used by Fenway Park and SoFi Stadium.  The facial recognition component is recorded via the kiosk-based camera when the entry point narrows, requiring just a couple of seconds.

Protesters at the last season game of the Phillies said facial recognition ticketing is being used at a range of stadiums, but said “Go-Ahead Entry” appears to be the first official league-sponsored system.

Facial recognition technologies are perilous, the protest group argued. “These dangerous technologies frequently misidentify people of color and gather mass amounts of unreliable data that has already been used by police to arrest and imprison the wrong people,” said Michael De Dora, US policy and advocacy manager at Access Now.

In addition to Fight for the Future, Access Now joined nine other privacy groups in signing the petition:  Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, Demand Progress, MediaJustice, Muslim Advocates, PDX Privacy, The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and X-Lab.

Part of the groups’ concerns is how MLB plans to store and use the tokens it obtains, which could live on for an extended time. The groups cited an ACLU experiment in 2019 that scanned photos of high-profile professional athletes from Massachusetts, but facial recognition software falsely matched 27 athletes to mug shots in a law enforcement database.

In 2020, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM put moratoriums on the sale of their facial recognition tools to law enforcement, based on concerns over invasion of privacy and racial discrimination.

Facial recognition systems like the one being used at Phillies games this season “have little to no tangible benefit to fans, weaken our collective privacy and pose heightened risks to marginalized groups, particularly people of color,” said Jake Wiener, counsel for EPIC, in a statement.   He urged MLB to lead other groups by saying no to facial recognition.

Phillies and MLB did not respond to Fierce requests to comment.

Fight for the Future has carried out a protracted campaign to oppose facial recognition systems as they crop up, noticing recently that the tech used by top soccer club Palmeiras helped the Sao Paulo Public Security Secretariat to arrest 28 criminals in four games at Allianz Parque stadium, the government said recently.

Madison Square Garden came under fire earlier this year for using facial recognition to ban the owner’s legal opponents from attending events.   One attorney blocked from the Garden sued over the treatment.