Homeland Security testing facial recognition at hockey game

What does hockey have to do with national security? Hockey fans make up a sea of faces that will help the Department of Homeland Security test its facial recognition software capabilities. During hockey games, Tri-Cities Toyota Center, formerly known as the Tri-Cities Coliseum, in Kennewick, Washington, has the seating capacity for about 6,000 fans. But the purpose of the test on Sept 21 at the Tri-city Americans season opener is to detect only 20 specific faces in the crowd. All the other fans are simply “background” noise.

Hockey fans make up a sea of faces that will help the Department of Homeland Security test its facial recognition software capabilities

The Tri-City Herald reported, “Eventually, state-of-the-art facial recognition technologies could be used to identify terrorists and criminals in public areas, according to the national lab in Richland. The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate works to make technology available to agencies ranging from local police offices to the U.S. Border Patrol, Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

This is not the first time that Homeland Security has tested the crowd-scanning Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS) at the Toyota Center. Last fall, after two years of development, DHS hired the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to test the face-scanning system; the results were disappointing and Homeland Security did not recommend deploying it.

Last month, The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reported on BOSS and the last test at the Toyota Center; it used 30 volunteers whose facial data was “mingled in a database among 1,000 mug shots to see whether the system could reliably recognize when any of the volunteers were present.”

“BOSS is capable of capturing images of an individual at 50-100 meters in distance,” states a Dec 2012 privacy impact assessment [pdf]. “The system can capture images of subjects participating from a specific distance, or be set up in a way that tracks and passively captures frontal face images of an individual as he/she moves in front of the camera.”

For this facial recognition test, multiple off-the-shelf video cameras will be set up “at different heights to get high and low angles of faces and they will collect video in areas with different lighting. It also wants to get videos of crowds walking mostly in the same direction, such as at the end of the game, and crowds in which people are walking in the corridor in both directions, such as between periods.”

The cameras will be located “in the main entrance, the hallway between sections S and W and at the concession stand at section W” to see how many times the detection software can find 20 PNNL employees and “match them with already-shot still photos of them.” Half of the employees were told “to do what they’d normally do at the game,” while the other half were given special instructions about walking “in a particular direction around the concourse at certain times” or told to stand in a concession line.

All will wear monitoring ankle bracelets that will signal when they are close enough to a camera to potentially allow their face to be recognized. That will help researchers know at what point on a video that detection technology could be able to find them. 

PNNL is only testing a portion of the Toyota Center, allowing hockey fans to opt out by following “corridor signs to areas without cameras.” PNNL engineer Marcia Kimura said, PNNL “purchased 46 seats at the arena to make sure walking areas are clear for those who don’t want their video captured.” Nick Lombardo, a PNNL project manager, added, “If they didn’t want to be videotaped, they could very easily not be videotaped.”

Although “hockey fans could be incorrectly identified as the person for whom the video is searching,” no names are collected and only government researchers will see the video. This goes quite a few steps beyond the Toyota Center's visual search policy, which states, "Unless the guest is asked to open their handbag or coat, the majority of guests do not realize they have been searched." However, like that search, you might not even know your face was scanned for security research purposes. Cory Pearson, executive director of VenuWorks, which operates the center, said the face scanning test is "in everybody's best interest."

Homeland Security stated [pdf], “The relative uniqueness and collectability of a face, for facial recognition purposes, make it an advantageous technology to develop and implement for national security purposes.” PNNL works with the 6,000-seat Toyota Center venue, which serves “as a long-term testbed for the project.” Also according to the privacy assessment, “Since 2008, the use of the Toyota Center involved integrating and conducting tests on technologies developed or acquired by PNNL under contract to support the STIDP test objectives. The Toyota center provides representative crowd dynamics using a relatively small venue with a simple footprint.”

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