Saturday night, a 6,000-seat hockey rink nestled in southeastern Washington state will be at the forefront of the Department of Homeland Security’s facial recognition technology efforts.
Only miles from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the Toyota Center — which also hosts concerts, circuses and indoor football — has been a testing site and data collection facility for DHS since 2008, according to agency documents. And at this Saturday’s Tri-City Americans hockey game, DHS will put new facial recognition cameras to the test. Twenty volunteers will be mingled in the crowd; the cameras are supposed to find them. The hope is eventually, instead of lab staffers, the cameras will be able to pick out criminals in public locations.
The nearby national lab, located in Richland, Wash., has been developing off-the-shelf facial recognition cameras as part of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. The high-resolution cameras would be a significant step up from previous grainy surveillance systems, which could not accurately identify individual faces. But there have been privacy concerns over the new system’s retention of facial data. The test is intended to ameliorate some of those concerns.
While the cameras may mistakenly identify regular fans as the volunteers, no names will be collected and the videos will stay with government researchers.
“Images of members of the public may be incidentally captured if they walk past designated facial recognition video data collection cameras, but these members of the public will not be identified by facial recognition systems,” read a DHS document about the project.
Season ticket holders have also been sent color-coded maps of the stadium with “opt out” sections highlighted where no data collection will occur. Signs at the stadium will also indicate where these “dark” sections are.
“If they didn’t want to be videotaped, they could very easily not be videotaped,” Nick Lombardo, a national lab project manager, told The Tri-City Herald, which first reported the story.
Of the 20 national lab staff members, 10 will be instructed to just act like a normal hockey fan. The others have been instructed to walk in certain patterns or go to specific areas — such as the concession stand — at designated times.
The cameras will try to identify all 20 faces based on personal photos the volunteers have provided. That way, researchers will be able to see how the cameras work with unique crowd arrangements — such as a single-file line at the concession stand or the amorphous crowd leaving the game.
The stadium has served as a testing ground before, capturing crowd footage for DHS in 2008 while it was developing a new screening system for explosives. And as Saturday’s game is the Tri-City Americans season opener, it might not be the last time DHS tests its facial recognition cameras at a game this year.