Big Brother, or Big Bother?

This Mashable piece about the use of face recognition software at a music festival was new to me:

Big Festival Brother? What summer music festivals are doing with your personal data

It’s May and the sun is finally out after a long British winter. For many that means one thing: festival season.

It’s a good occasion to disconnect from technology, go off the grid and enjoy a few days of carefree excitement. Or not.

Along with booze, music and mud — a lot of mud — British festivals may have another feature: mass surveillance.

Last year, Leicestershire police scanned the faces of 90,000 festival-goers at Download Festival, checking them against a list of wanted criminals across the country. It was the first time anywhere in the UK that facial recognition technology — NeoFace — was used at a public outdoor event.

Privacy campaigners — and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy — expressed their fury at authorities after they casually mentioned the use of the surveillance project on Police Oracle, a police news and information website. Police didn’t use any other method to warn festival-goers about the controversial initiative.

The article then goes on a wayward route – I’m not sure where to – as it skates over the topics of surveillance, privacy, and the use of personal data. However, it is this “controversial initiative” that is the cornerstone, and I think it’s badly directed.

Let’s examine what appears to have happened. The police used software that would help them find wanted criminals. What is wrong with that? Would there have been less protest if there had been police stationed at every entrance doing a personal check of the incoming faces? There was no intrusion into privacy. It was, after all, for the benefit of society. How many would complain if, for example, a rapist or a murderer committed more crimes because the police failed to arrest him when he turned up to see his favorite rock band? And as for giving a warning… “Calling all criminals. Please note that if you go to this festival, you might be recognized and arrested.” Ahem.

Sure, there are issues about the use of personal data. For example, if the police used these records to create profiles about innocent civilians, and kept these records for no good reason, that would be an abuse of power. But what if they were profiling potential terrorists? Why wouldn’t we want the police to be able to do that?

The irony is that private companies (not least Google) take a whole lot more intrusive steps into our private lives. To be fair, the article does mention the affect of apps, and the potential abuses. But were I a privacy campaigner, I think I would want to avoid creating a problem for the police in protecting society in the circumstances as described. As far as I am concerned, they can use face recognition on me anytime. I have nothing to hide.